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Anti-Turkey demo in Sweden deepens tensions over NATO bid

— Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey on Saturday cancelled a visit by the Swedish defence minister over a demonstration by an anti-Islamic extremist in Stockholm, sparking a fresh crisis as Sweden tries to convince Ankara not to block its bid to join the NATO military alliance.

Turkish officials denounced the permission granted to Rasmus Paludan, a right-wing Swedish-Danish politician, to stage a protest Saturday in front of its embassy in the Swedish capital.

After a diatribe of almost an hour in which he attacked Islam and immigration in Sweden, Paludan set fire to the Koran with a lighter.

"If you don't think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else," he told the crowd.

Last year, Paludan's announcement of a Koran-burning "tour" during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sparked riots across Sweden.

A day after summoning the Swedish ambassador over Paludan's latest demo, Ankara said it had called off Defence Minister Pal Jonson's visit scheduled for January 27 and aimed at overcoming Turkey's objections to Sweden's NATO bid.

The meeting "has lost its significance and meaning, so we cancelled", Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.

Jonson said the decision to postpone had been made jointly with Akar on Friday at the US military base in Ramstein, Germany, where Ukraine's allies were meeting to discuss further weapon supplies for Kyiv.

"Our relations with Turkey are very important to Sweden, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defence issues at a later date," Jonson tweeted.

- International outrage -

Condemnation poured in from the Muslim world.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation bloc said the "provocative action... targets Muslims, insults their sacred values, and serves as further example of the alarming level reached by Islamophobia" and asked Sweden to punish those behind a "hate crime".

Saudi Arabia underscored "the importance of spreading the values of dialogue, tolerance and coexistence and rejecting hatred and extremism".

The United Arab Emirates said it was against "all practices aimed at destabilising security and stability in contravention of human and moral values and principles".

The Gulf Cooperation Council also condemned the protest.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said: "Islamophobic provocations are appalling".

"Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression, but it does not imply that the Swedish government, or myself, support the opinions expressed."

Paludan's protest was held under heavy police protection with around 100 people -- including a large number of reporters -- gathered near the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's top press aide, Fahrettin Altun, urged Sweden to "immediately act" against hatred-filled provocations.

"The Swedish authorities must wake up to the reality of terror groups intent on preventing Sweden's NATO membership by poisoning their relationship with us," he tweeted.

A small pro-Turkey demonstration also took place on the other side of the embassy, while a pro-Kurdish rally called by the Rojava Committee of Sweden and others took place in Stockholm, drawing several hundred people.

- 'Modern barbarism' -

Swedish police gave their authorisation for the demo after determining it fell under the country's liberal freedom of speech laws.

But Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said allowing the protest was "encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia".

"The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism," he tweeted on Saturday.

Devlet Bahceli, head of the nationalist MHP party, the junior partner in Erdogan's governing coalition, vowed that "Sweden's NATO membership will not be approved by the parliament".

A group of protesters set fire to a Swedish flag at a rally outside its consulate in Istanbul and called on Turkey to cut diplomatic ties with Stockholm, an AFP journalist reported.

Another group protested near the Swedish embassy in Ankara.

Turkey had already summoned Sweden's ambassador on Friday to "condemn this provocative action which is clearly a hate crime -- in strongest terms," a diplomatic source said.

Already on January 12, the ambassador had been called to answer for a video posted by the pro-Kurd Rojava Committee of Sweden that depicted Erdogan swinging by his legs from a rope.

A tweet by the group compared Erdogan to Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who was hung upside down after his execution in the closing days of World War II.

Both Sweden and its neighbour Finland are hoping to join NATO, dropping decades of military non-alignment in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But they need the consent of Turkey, a member of the alliance, to join.

Ankara says its approval is conditional on Swedish steps to extradite people it accuses of terrorism or of having played a part in the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

Turkey says Sweden has not done enough to crack down on the Kurdish groups Ankara views as "terrorist".