By Firat Kozok , Taylan Bilgic , and Cagan Koc
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Turkey’s foreign minister that the Trump administration is profoundly “concerned” about the detention of U.S. citizens and the arrest of local Turkish consular employees, the State Department said.
Wednesday’s telephone call between Tillerson and Turkey’s top diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu came after the U.S. ambassador to Turkey said Tillerson held talks to try and resolve a major diplomatic break between the two NATO allies.
Speaking to reporters at his residence in Ankara, Ambassador John Bass said the decision to freeze visa services from U.S. missions in Turkey stems from a conclusion that two Turkish citizens who worked for the embassy were detained for their work on behalf of the American government. He said that he couldn’t comment on the charges or evidence against the two because Turkey hasn’t provided the U.S. with that information.
In his call, Tillerson “emphasized the importance of transparency in the accusations made by the Turkish government and the need for the Turkish government to present the evidence behind these accusations,” the State Department said in a statement.
“We’ll continue to try to address the matter in way that enables us to lift our temporary suspension of visa services,” Bass told reporters. “I can’t prefigure the outcome because its going to depend on those ongoing private conversations and I wont comment on private diplomatic conversations between my minister and his counterparts.”
The comments came a day after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Bass may have gone rogue in suspending visa services over the arrest of a second Turkish employee of the U.S. diplomatic mission last week, a claim rejected by U.S. officials later on Tuesday. Erdogan had been encouraging the impression that Bass acted without approval from Washington, a view that gained traction after several days of silence from the State Department and White House.
“I find the lack of consultation by senior U.S. authorities with our foreign minister awkward,” Erdogan said in televised remarks in Belgrade, Serbia, on Tuesday. “If the ambassador acted on his own, then the U.S. administration should not keep him there for a minute.”
Erdogan also rebuffed criticism of Turkey’s arrest of the consulate employee, alleging he had ties to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding a coup attempt last year.
“The information that a second person is there shows something is going on at the consulate in Istanbul,” Erdogan said, adding that the U.S. should evaluate how such “agents” infiltrated the mission or who placed them there.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. has seen no evidence that the consular employees were supporters of Gulen. Bass’s move was made in consultation with Trump administration officials in Washington, she said.
Turkey’s ties with the U.S. have frayed since the failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016. The U.S. has declined to extradite Gulen, citing a lack of evidence. In a purge that followed the attempted putsch, about 110,000 people have been removed from state jobs; banks, businesses and media outlets were seized or shut down; and tens of thousands, including army officers, academics and journalists, remain in detention.
Among them is also an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was detained last October and has been held in a Turkish prison ever since, despite repeated calls for his release. U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have directly called on Erdogan in private meetings to set him free.
“We have seen nothing to date which suggests that any of the charges against him had any merit,” Bass said of Brunson. “He appears to be being held simply because he’s an American citizen who as a man of faith was in contact with a range of people in this country who he was trying to help in keeping with his faith. For some reason his side of interactions are suddenly being classified as support for terrorism or membership in a terrorist organization, and I have yet to see a consistent description of which terrorist organization he is supposed to be a member of.”
— With assistance by Gordana Filipovic, Nick Wadhams, and Selcan Hacaoglu