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Turkey PM shrugs off health fears

Ecevit's absence at Friday's meeting caused stock market to slide  

ANKARA, Turkey -- An ailing Bulent Ecevit has dismissed fears he could resign as Turkey's prime minster, saying doctors have merely ordered him to rest for two or three weeks.

Ecevit, 77, on Sunday made his public appearance in more than a week outside his Ankara home to tell reporters his fragile coalition government was working normally.

"I have absolutely no intention of leaving my governmental duties and as long I hold the title of prime minister I do not have the right to abandon those duties," he said.

A relaxed-looking Ecevit said he had recovered from two of the problems for which he was admitted to hospital on May 17 for 10 days -- a cracked rib and thrombophlebitis, a condition involving blood clots that can block the arteries. "My hands are not shaking," he added.

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But doctors had identified slight bruising around the spine and had ordered the two or three weeks' rest to avoid aggravating that problem.

Ecevit was admitted to hospital twice in May, stirring fears of a power vacuum that could undermine economic reform.

Financial markets are nervous about the prime minister's health because of fears a possible early election could upset a $16 billion IMF economic recovery pact for Turkey, a NATO member and distant EU membership candidate.

He said his government was in full harmony and rejected talk of divisions in the three-party coalition sparked by comments from the leader of the Nationalist Action Party, Devlet Bahceli, who hardened his stance against some sensitive reforms needed to join the EU.

"There is no reason why the government should cut short its activity. Furthermore I believe it would not be right. This government has succeeded in working with a harmony not seen in any other government," Ecevit said.

Ecevit hurried the news conference to an end after half an hour, laughing as he quipped: "The game is about to start" -- a reference to Turkey's World Cup match in which they drew 1-1 with Costa Rica. (Match report)

Power vacuum

Turkey's stock market slid 3.21 percent on Friday after Ecevit pulled out of a meeting of party leaders called by the president to discuss Turkey's EU ambitions. The Turkish lira and stocks also fell.

Opposition parties, and even some members of Ecevit's three-party coalition, have already called for him to step down. Tansu Ciller, leader of the largest opposition party in parliament, refused to attend Friday's meeting in Ecevit's absence.

"There's a government vacuum in Turkey.... Without solving the government problem, we can't solve our other problems," Ciller told The Associated Press. She called for the formation of a caretaker government, led by her party, to take the country to autumn polls.

But the three parties that make up Ecevit's coalition have largely stood by the premier, whose personal authority has been key to holding the squabbling coalition together.

Hakan Tartan, a senior lawmaker from Ecevit's Democratic Left Party, insisted on Friday that the premier was capable of holding on to power. Ecevit "will withdraw if he knows he is unable to perform his duties," Tartan told AP.

At the present "there is no situation preventing the prime minister from working," he added.

Turkish newspapers have speculated that Ecevit has Parkinson's disease and myasthenia gravis, a nerve disease characterised by weakness and muscle fatigue. The premier has neither confirmed nor denied those reports.

The mass-circulation Sabah newspaper, in an open letter, urged on Friday: "Don't surrender Turkey to a political vacuum and uncertainty. Take the step history expects of you and cede the office you were entrusted with."

Turkey became a candidate for EU membership in 1999 but has yet to implement a long list of economic, political and human rights reforms to begin accession talks. Parliament must also pass a swathe of laws to fulfil promises to the IMF before adjourning for summer recess in July.


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