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Hamas is not terrorist group: Turkey's Erdogan

Around 10,000 protest against Israel in Istanbul

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday he did not view radical Palestinian group Hamas, Israel's arch-foe, as a terrorist organization.

"Hamas are resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land. They have won an election," Erdogan said in a public speech in the central city of Konya, broadcast live on television, as up to 10,000 people rallied in Istanbul, shouting anti-Israeli slogans.

"I have told this to U.S. officials... I do not accept Hamas as a terrorist organization. I think the same today. They are defending their land," he said.

"Hypocritical, paranoid, liar"

The United States and the European Union blacklist Hamas as a terrorist group despite its victory in Palestinian elections in 2006.

Erdogan made the remarks in an angry tirade against Israel after Monday's raid on a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, which claimed the lives of nine Turks and plunged already strained ties between the once-close allies into deep crisis.

He lashed out at Western powers for denying Hamas a chance to shift to a democratic platform.

"Why didn't you give them an opportunity? Let them wage a democratic struggle," he said, his speech often interrupted by a cheering crowd of party supporters.

Erdogan renewed criticism of Israel's raid on the aid flotilla, whose main organizers included a Turkish Islamist charity, with the bulk of its passengers Turks.

The Israeli government, he said, is "hypocritical," "paranoid" and a "liar."

Around 10,000 people waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israeli slogans rallied Friday in support of victims of the Israeli raid on Gaza-bound aid ships, an AFP reporter said, as Turkey said it could cut ties with Israel to a minimum.

The crowd gathered at the historic Beyazit Mosque in Istanbul, where prayers were held for a journalist who was killed in Monday's raid, along with eight other Turks.

"Murderer Israel, go away from Palestine!", "Long live the global intifada," the mourners chanted, shouting also "Long live Hamas" in reference to the Palestinian movement controlling Gaza.

"Close the Zionist embassy"

"Close the Zionist embassy," read a giant banner displayed at the mosque courtyard.

The crowd held both Friday prayers and funeral prayers for Cevdet Kiliclar, the 38-year-old web editor of the Islamic charity which spearheaded the campaign to break Israel's blockade of Gaza and deliver some 10,000 tons of supplies to its impoverished people.

"He was just taking pictures. He was shot at from no more than a meter and his brain exploded," Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Foundation of Humanitarian Relief (IHH), said Thursday after the bodies were flown home.

The demonstration came a day after up to 20,000 people gathered in Istanbul for funeral prayers for the other eight victims.

Turkey, meanwhile, said it could cut ties with Israel to a minimum after the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla plunged relations to their lowest since the two countries forged a strategic relationship in the 1990s.

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said existing military and economic agreements with Israel were now on the table for discussion.

"We are serious about this subject," he told NTV broadcaster in an interview.

"We may plan to reduce our relations with Israel to a minimum, but to assume everything involving another country is stopped in an instant, to say we have crossed you out of our address book, is not the custom of our state," he said.

Deteriorating ties

Turkey, Israel's only Muslim ally, had already recalled its ambassador and cancelled joint military exercises after the nine activists were killed while trying to break a blockade on Gaza.

A spokeswoman for activists aboard another boat trying to run the blockade said they would continue their voyage. Israel, facing an international outcry over its naval operation on Monday, has vowed to stop the Rachel Corrie, named after an activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered Israeli forces to exercise "caution and politeness" in handling the ship. The boat is expected near the waters off Gaza by Saturday.

Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza after Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007.

Israel has defended the embargo, saying it stops Hamas from bringing in weapons to fight Israel. But officials said on Thursday Netanyahu was considering modifying the blockade, which would introduce some form of international role in enforcing an arms embargo, while letting in civilian goods.

Turkey, a moderate, secular country, recognized the Jewish state soon after its establishment in 1948 and in the 1990s it forged military and intelligence cooperation agreements with Israel, when both had hostile relations with Syria.

With Turkey a customer for Israeli arms, bilateral trade reached $2.5 billion in 2009. Projects worth several billion dollars are in the pipeline in water, energy and agriculture.