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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Top US general visits Ankara amid strained ties

The Nato allies have been at odds over the detention of American Christian pastor Andrew Brunson

US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson. AFP 
US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson. AFP 

Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Curtis Scaparrotti arrived in Turkey on Wednesday for a visit aimed at easing tensions between Ankara and Washington as relations soured over the case of a US pastor jailed in Turkey on terrorism charges.

The US Commander landed in Izmir on Wednesday where he met Turkish Chief of General Staff General Yasar Guler. Izmir is the headquarters of Nato’s land command, and where US Pastor Andrew Brunson is being held under house arrest.

While some Turkish reports claimed that Gen. Scaparrotti would meet Mr Brunson, there was no indication of that on Wednesday.

Instead, the situation in Manbij following a US-Turkey agreement in June and the controversial S-400 defense system deal that Ankara signed with Moscow were expected to top the agenda. US Congress views the deal as a security threat to NATO, and the House of Representatives passed legislation last week to block F-35 jet deliveries to Turkey if it goes ahead with the S-400 purchase.

In Washington, a former US official with knowledge of the negotiations told The National that the US administration is reviewing list of options to sanction Turkey for continuing to hold Mr Brunson. Such measures "could take days but the process has started", the source said.

Last week, both US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence promised sanctions on Ankara if Mr Brunson who is held on charges of espionage, is not released immediately. On Tuesday, the pastor’s appeal to end his house arrest was rejected by a Turkish court, prompting a process of sanctions review in Washington.

But US Secretary Mike Pompeo held his third call in six days with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday to discuss Mr Brunson’s detention.

The threatening language of the United States will not benefit anyone, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday in relation to the pastor's case.

Speaking in Ankara, Mr Erdogan said Turkey would not make compromises regarding the independence of the judiciary, and said the remarks of the "evangelist, Zionist mentality" in the US was unacceptable.

He also said his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, would hold talks with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on the sidelines of an Asean meeting in Singapore.

Relations between the two Nato allies have spiralled into a full-blown crisis over the trial of the Christian pastor, who was held for 21 months in a Turkish prison until his transfer to house arrest last week – a move Washington dismissed as insufficient. He is accused of helping the group Ankara accuses of being behind a failed military coup in 2016.

Mr Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty of the charges, which he denies.

The next hearing in his trial is not scheduled until October 12, but his lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said he would keep pressing for Mr Brunson's release. "We are going to request his house arrest be lifted every month," he told Reuters.

The White House has not specified what sanctions might be imposed on Turkey.

“We won’t comment on potential sanctions targets or processes. In the meanwhile, diplomacy will continue," said National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis.

In two pieces of legislation pending approval, members of the US Congress have condemned the detention of Mr Brunson and other Americans.

One proposed bill would restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey until Ankara stops the "arbitrary arrest and detention" of US citizens and consular staff. Language that calls for the release of Mr Brunson and others has also been included in a defence authorisation bill.

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Mr Erdogan's spokesman said on Tuesday that Turkey would not "bow down to any threats", and would retaliate against any US sanctions.

"It is unacceptable for the US to use a threatening language against Turkey, using an ongoing court case as a pretext," spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said.

Ankara had the right to seek arbitration if Washington blocked delivery of F-35 jets to Turkey, Mr Kalin said. He added that Turkey expected the issue to be resolved through diplomacy and that foreign ministers of the two countries would meet this week.

A State Department official was unable to confirm any planned meeting between Mr Pompeo and Mr Cavusoglu.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Centre for Law and Justice, which represents Mr Brunson's family, said the ACLJ was not surprised that the appeal was denied.

"Ongoing diplomatic efforts are taking place at the highest level," Mr Sekulow said.

Mr Brunson was accused of helping supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the 2016 coup attempt against Mr Erdogan in which 250 people were killed.

He was also charged with supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants and espionage.

Mr Brunson's detention has deepened a rift between Washington and Ankara, who are also at odds over the Syrian war, Turkey's plan to buy a missile defence system from Russia, and planned US sanctions on Iran - which supplies fuel to Turkey.