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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, June 13, 2017. Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS


By Daren Butler and Tulay Karadeniz

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey sent a first shipment of food supplies and a small contingent of soldiers and armoured vehicles to Qatar on Thursday, officials said, while President Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Saudi Arabia's leaders on calming tension in the region.

Turkey has backed Qatar after Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states cut all economic and diplomatic ties this month, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism, a charge it denies.

Ankara fast-tracked legislation on June 7 to allow more troops to be deployed to a military base in Qatar that houses Turkish soldiers under an agreement signed in 2014.

Five armoured vehicles and 23 military personnel arrived in Doha on Thursday morning as part of the new deployment plans, Turkey's armed forces said in a statement, adding that the move was in the framework of legal measures regarding military training and cooperation between the two countries.

Some 88 Turkish soldiers were already in Qatar, according to the Hurriyet newspaper.

After the deployment, a joint exercise by Turkish and Qatari forces was expected following the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday, Hurriyet said. The number of Turkish soldiers sent to the Gulf state could eventually reach 1,000, it said, adding that an air force contingent was also envisaged.

Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said Turkey has so far sent 105 cargo planes of supplies, but that it was not sustainable to maintain aid supplies through an air lift.

"It is not economical or sustainable to send normal food supplies by airplane," he told state-run Anadolu news agency on Wednesday, adding that it was beginning to send aid by ships and by road. He said that alongside food supplies, consumer durables and household goods would also be sent.

The first Turkish ship carrying some 4,000 tonnes of dry food supplies, fruit and vegetables set off from a port in western Turkey's Izmir province at dawn on Thursday, Anadolu said. It cited the head of the logistics company delivering the supplies as saying it was expected to arrive in Doha in around 10 days.

Ankara has sought to keep up good relations with the rest of the Gulf and sources from Erdogan's office said he spoke by phone overnight with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, congratulating the latter on his promotion.

"Agreement was reached on increasing efforts towards ending tension in the region related to Qatar," the sources said in a statement regarding the phone calls on Thursday. Erdogan and King Salman agreed to hold face-to-face talks at the G20 meeting in Hamburg next month, the sources said.

King Salman made his son next in line to the throne on Wednesday, handing the 31-year-old sweeping powers as the kingdom seeks a radical overhaul of its oil-dependent economy and faces mounting tensions with regional rival Iran.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Richard Balmforth)

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