By Elizabeth Piper and Tulay Karadeniz
ANKARA (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May signed a $125 million fighter jet deal with Turkey on Saturday and briefly cautioned Ankara on human rights following last year's failed coup, in a visit squarely aimed at boosting trade between the NATO allies.
May, in Turkey a day after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, avoided criticizing his sweeping ban on people from certain countries seeking refuge in the United States. She visited both countries for the first time as prime minister, promoting trade deals that would strengthen her hand in talks to leave the European Union.
Speaking to reporters at the presidential palace in Ankara alongside President Tayyip Erdogan, May called Turkey one of Britain's oldest friends and touched on human rights, a sore point for Erdogan, who accuses the West of not showing enough solidarity following a July 15 military putsch attempt.
"I'm proud that the UK stood with you on the 15 July last year in defense of democracy and now it is important that Turkey sustains that democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations as the government has undertaken to do," she said.
Rights groups and some Western politicians have been more critical. More than 100,000 people have been sacked or suspended following the failed coup and some 40,000 jailed pending trial. Ankara says the measures are needed to root out supporters of the putsch.
At a joint news conference later with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, May was asked more than once about Trump's sweeping ban on people seeking refuge in the United States. She said Washington was responsible for its own policies on refugees.
May had previously said the nature of the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States meant the allies could speak frankly to each other when they disagreed.
In her Turkey visit, as in the United States, it was clear her priority was on securing trade. She said the UK and Turkey had agreed to form a joint working group for post-Brexit trade and would step up an aviation security program.
'OPEN FOR BUSINESS'
The two countries signed a defense deal worth more than 100 million pounds ($125 million) to develop Turkish fighter jets.
May said the deal, which involves BAE Systems and TAI(Turkish Aerospace Industries) working together to develop the TF-X Turkish fighter program, showed "Britain is a great, global, trading nation and that we are open for business".
Yildirim said the two countries plan to sign a free-trade deal once Britain leaves the European Union, while Erdogan told reporters that he discussed steps towards defense industry cooperation with May, and that he hoped to increase annual trade with Britain to $20 billion from $15.6 billion now.
May's government is keen to start laying the groundwork for bilateral trade agreements for when Britain leaves the European Union, a process that will take at least two years after triggering the formal divorce talks by the end of March.
The United Kingdom was the No. 2 destination for Turkish exports in 2015, buying $10.6 billion in goods, according to IMF trade data. Only Germany imports more from Turkey.
The countries also discussed the fight against militant groups. Yildirim said he requested legal action against supporters of the coup, who he said are active in Britain.
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Helen Popper)