By Simon Lewis
ANKARA (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan in Ankara on Monday to discuss efforts to expand humanitarian aid in Gaza, and to prevent the war between Israel and militant Palestinian group Hamas from spreading.
Blinken is touring the region aiming to calm tensions over the war. Underlining Turkey’s sharp criticism of Israeli and U.S. policy during the conflict, crowds gathered outside the meeting venue demanding Blinken and his delegation leave.
“We discussed…efforts to significantly expand the humanitarian assistance to people in need, and efforts to prevent the conflict expanding to other parts of the region and what we can do to set the conditions for a durable, sustainable, lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians,” Blinken later told reporters at the airport before departing Ankara.
The meeting between Blinken and Fidan lasted two and a half hours, a U.S. State Department official said. No talks took place between Blinken and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has criticised Washington over its “unlimited support to Israel”.
Washington wants to prevent a wider regional conflict and has stepped up diplomacy with countries across the region whose peoples have been angered by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
A Turkish foreign ministry source said Fidan told Blinken that a ceasefire must be declared immediately in Gaza and that Israel must be prevented from targeting civilians and displacing people.
Blinken said at the airport that the United States has made some good progress on humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
“We are working very aggressively on getting more humanitarian assistance in Gaza. And we have very concrete ways in doing that. And I think we’ll see in the days ahead that assistance can expand in significant ways,” he said.
Health officials in Hamas-controlled Gaza said on Monday that 10,022 Palestinians have been killed so far in the war, which began when Hamas killed 1,400 people and seized more than 240 hostages in southern Israel on Oct. 7.
Asked what concrete progress he has made during his tour of the region, Blinken pointed to efforts to avoid a regional escalation: “Sometimes the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is,” he said.
Turkey, a NATO member which supports a two-state solution in the Middle East, has sharply escalated its criticism of Israel as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has deepened. It also hosts members of Hamas, which is viewed as a terrorist organisation by some Western countries but not by Ankara.
Blinken said Washington remains focused on the hostages held by Hamas including Americans, adding that other countries in the region can play an important role in getting them back.
As Blinken met Fidan in Ankara, dozens of people gathered outside the foreign ministry building to protest U.S. support for Israel. Blinken “has given limitless support to Israel’s genocide – not war,” said activist Zeynel Abidin Ozkan, who took part.
“World states are supporting the massacres and genocides that Israel is committing in the region by patting Israel on the back but the peoples of Europe, America and our country are on the side of Palestine.”
Hours before Blinken arrived late on Sunday, hundreds of people gathered near the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, which houses U.S. troops, for a pro-Palestinian rally.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds after they tried to storm the base, which has been used to support the international coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Huseyin Hayatsever, Ece Toksabay and Mert Ozkan;Editing by Daren Butler, Gareth Jones, Jonathan Spicer and Sharon Singleton)