ANKARA, Turkey, June 23 (UPI) -- A Turkish air force delgation traveled to Israel to test and eventually authorize the dispatch of four drones ordered from Tel Aviv, the Turkish daily Today's Zaman reported.
The report was in stark opposition to statements made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month that military relations with Israel had been suspended in response to a deadly operation by Israeli commandos to thwart a flotilla trying to break a blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Today's Zaman said the Turkish delegation would stay in Tel Aviv for nearly two weeks to test the Heron unmanned aircraft vehicles, its electronic equipment and spare parts.
Turkey awarded the $180 million contract five years ago, placing the order with Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit. Both companies beat major U.S. competitors but the deal has been dogged by delays stemming from technical problems.
The contract deadline was initially set at 24-30 months. But both contracts missed the first deadline, breaching also a follow-up delivery date for the dispatch of four Herons last August.
When that deadline was missed, the Turkish government threatened to pull the plug on the order, saying it would seek financial damages with Israeli contracts.
Israel has since delivered six of the 10 Herons ordered, with the Israeli contractors agreeing to compensate Turkey with $18 million in equipment and services, rather than cash. The remaining four drones were due for delivery in July.
Relations between Israel and Turkey took a turn for the worse last month following the deadly attack on the aid flotilla that left nine Turkish nationals on one of the boats dead.
The Arutz Sheva news agency in Israel reported that a string of military agreements were nixed as a result of the flotilla raid.
Muslim but secular Turkey has had a strong history of military cooperation with Israel. It has also acted as an intermediary for the Jewish state with the Arab world.
Despite the rift in relations, leading Turkish military officials said this week that they were using the Israeli-made drones to support attacks on Kurdish separatist rebels in northern Iraq.
Speaking at an international conference Monday, Chief of the General Staff of Turkey Gen. Ilker Basbug said the drones had been used in recent surveillance missions over Iraq. His remark came after a weekend of clashes with Kurdish rebels left at least a dozen Turkish soldiers dead.
He said the Heron drones that were operated by Israeli controllers were now in the hands of Turkish officers.
"Now our own personnel, our air force is using the Heron systems that we bought," Basbug said. "They got the training, it is over. We are capable. We have started using them."