Turkey backs Rutte as next NATO chief, Ankara official says

FILE PHOTO: Informal EU leaders summit in Brussels

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey has told allies that it will back the candidacy of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to be NATO's next secretary-general, a Turkish official said on Monday, an important step towards securing him the top job.

NATO's next chief will face the challenge of sustaining allies' support for Ukraine's fight against Russia's invasion, while guarding against any escalation that could draw the military alliance directly into a war with Moscow.

NATO takes decisions by consensus, so any candidate needs the support of all 32 allies.

Turkey, along with fellow NATO member states Hungary, Slovakia and Romania - whose President Klaud Iohannis is standing against Rutte - has not publicly voiced its support for Rutte to succeed Jens Stoltenberg, who will be stepping down as the head of the military alliance in October.

Ankara's backing may increase pressure on Iohannis to withdraw from the contest, though Hungary has expressed opposition to Rutte's candidacy.

Budapest has raised critical comments made by Rutte about its government, but some diplomats say it could change its stance if Rutte pays a visit to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as he did to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last week.

They expect Slovakia would also fall into line.

The United States, France, Germany, Britain and other alliance members have already voiced support for Rutte's candidacy.

Depending on the outcome of November's U.S. presidential election, Stoltenberg's successor may have to work with Donald Trump, who has faced fierce criticism for calling into question his commitment to defending NATO allies if re-elected.

Rutte - The Netherlands' longest-serving leader - announced his departure from Dutch politics last July, but remains in post. He has good relationships with British, European Union and U.S. leaders, including Trump.

Many NATO members are keen to wrap up the selection process soon, so it does not become part of bargaining over top European Union jobs after elections to the European Parliament in June.

Citing NATO diplomats, Dutch news agency ANP said earlier on Monday that Turkey had decided to back Rutte's candidacy, but it did not provide further details. Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency also confirmed Ankara's backing.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Sabine Siebold and Andrew Gray in Brussels, and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Editing by Huseyin Hayatsever, Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Heavens)