U.S., Turkey Put End to Visa Spat

U.S., Turkey Put End to Visa Spat

The United States and Turkey on Thursday turned the page on a visa crisis triggered nearly three months ago by the arrest of a staff member at the American mission in Ankara, but relations between the NATO allies remain tense.

The two sides announced the resumption of full visa services for each other's citizens, but their statements revealed lingering misgivings between the countries, who are partners in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Washington said it had won assurances from Ankara that no further legal proceedings would be launched against its staff, though the Turkish embassy in the U.S. capital insisted "no such assurances have been given."

Nevertheless, the State Department said it was "confident that the security posture has improved sufficiently to allow for the full resumption of visa services in Turkey."

The U.S. move is effective immediately, a department official told AFP.

Shortly thereafter, the Turkish mission in Washington said: "Within the framework of the principle of reciprocity, the restrictions placed from our side on the visa regime for U.S. citizens are being lifted simultaneously."

The U.S. decision to stop handing out visas was implemented from October 8 and was followed by a tit-for-tat move by Turkey to stop giving visas to Americans.

The crisis was triggered when U.S. consulate staffer Metin Topuz was formally charged with espionage and seeking to overthrow the Turkish government -- accusations the U.S. embassy in Ankara has said are "wholly without merit."

Topuz, a Turkish citizen, is accused of links to a group led by Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara suspects of ordering last year's failed coup in Turkey.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999, denies any involvement in the attempted overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

.In November, the U.S. said it had resumed limited visa services, a move matched by Turkey's missions in the U.S.

But the services were so limited that the first interview appointments for Turks seeking most types of U.S. visas were only available from January 2019, causing uproar on social media.

'Serious concerns'

Washington says it is now confident that there are "no additional local employees of our mission in Turkey under investigation" and that "local staff of our embassy and consulates will not be detained or arrested for performing their official duties," a State Department official said.

Turkish authorities will also inform the U.S. "in advance" if they intend to arrest any local staff member in the future.

But U.S. authorities added: "We continue to have serious concerns about the existing allegations against arrested local employees of our mission in Turkey."

Reflecting the language of the American statement, Ankara said it continued to have "serious concerns" regarding cases involving Turkish citizens in the United States.

In March, a Turkish employee at the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Adana was arrested on charges of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

And U.S. authorities also expressed concern about other U.S. citizens arrested in Turkey under a state of emergency declared in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt.

American pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in the western city of Izmir, has been held by Turkish authorities since October 2016 on charges of being a member of Gulen's group.

"U.S. officials will continue to engage with their Turkish counterparts to seek a satisfactory resolution of these cases," the State Department official said.

Strained ties

Turkey is a key player in the anti-IS fight, and the U.S. relies heavily on the airbase at Incirlik in the country's south to launch air strikes against the militants in neighboring Iraq and Syria.

But relations between the NATO allies have frayed over American support for Syrian Kurdish militia seen by Turkey as "terrorists" and the U.S. failure to extradite Gulen.

Ties also hit a stumbling block over the arrest and trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who stands accused of violating sanctions against Iran, bribery and money laundering.

His co-defendant turned government witness Reza Zarrab implicated former Turkish ministers and even Erdogan in the scheme.

Turkey's president -- who had hoped to build better ties with U.S. President Donald Trump -- also bristled at the American leader's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The State Department nevertheless underlined Washington's partnership with Ankara in explaining the restoration of visa services.

"Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally and a critical defense partner," the official told AFP.

"We work together closely to confront the serious challenges that face both of our nations."