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German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel attends a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas


BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's foreign minister said on Tuesday he would try to avoid damaging already strained relations with NATO partner Turkey during a withdrawal of German troops, as he didn't want a mounting dispute to push Ankara into closer ties with Moscow.

Sigmar Gabriel said his officials would do their best not to escalate the situation as German troops left the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey - in reaction to Ankara's decision to restrict German lawmakers' access to the soldiers.

"Above all we should organise the withdrawal so that there is no megaphone diplomacy where we trade insults," Gabriel told Deutschlandfunk radio.

He said he had agreed with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen that the German cabinet would deal with the issue on Wednesday. He also said the defence ministry had already been working on a withdrawal plan.

Turkey's ties with Germany and other European Union states deteriorated sharply in the run-up to Turkey's April 16 referendum that handed President Tayyip Erdogan stronger presidential powers.

Germany, citing security concerns, banned some Turkish politicians from addressing rallies of expatriate Turks before the referendum. Ankara responded by accusing Berlin of "Nazi-like" tactics, drawing rebukes from Berlin.

Turkey has reignited a row over access to German forces on its territory by imposing new restrictions on German lawmakers visiting Incirlik.

The German deployment at Incirlik is part of a mission providing reconnaissance aircraft to support U.S.-led coalition operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Gabriel said the defence ministry had concluded it now made more sense logistically to send Germany's Tornado jets to Jordan.

"We have no interest in pushing Turkey into a corner ... we don't want to push it towards Russia," Gabriel said. "This is no small thing but it is about more than Incirlik, it's about our relationship with Turkey," he said.

Turkey has been seeking to improve relations with Russia. Last month it agreed plans with Moscow and Tehran to reduce the fighting in Syria, and has been working to end economic barriers imposed after Turkey shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian border in 2015.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after meeting Gabriel in Ankara on Monday that relations with Germany had suffered recently, but that trade and investment between the two countries were still strong.

"We spoke about how we can focus on this more, what steps could be taken to increase contact between the two nations and disperse this negative atmosphere," he said.

Berlin is also worried about a security crackdown in Turkey after last year's failed coup. Some 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended from their jobs and 50,000 people jailed pending trial.

"Turkey wants an expansion of the customs union. We say we are ready for that ... but you have to move, too," said Gabriel, who stressed that adhering to the rule of law was necessary.

Germany has also pushed for the release of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, who was arrested in Turkey in February on a charge of spreading terrorist propaganda.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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