Turkey detains U.S. consulate worker's family as tension mounts

The U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Last Updated Oct 9, 2017 12:02 PM EDT

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey on Monday pressed the United States to reverse its decision to suspend most visa services for Turkish citizens, saying people from both countries are suffering from the move, a Turkish official said, even as the family of a U.S. government employee was taken into custody.

The U.S. on Sunday suspended the issuing of visas for Turks hoping to visit or study in the United States following the arrest of an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul last week that deepened tensions between the two NATO allies.

The measure prompted Turkey to immediately halt visa services in the U.S. in a tit-for-tat response, and there were reports that a second U.S. Consulate employee had been taken into custody on Monday morning.

Turkey's state-run media quoted the Attorney General as saying an employee of the consulate in Istanbul, "who has no diplomatic immunity, has been invited to the prosecutor's office for testimony and his wife and children were taken into custody in Amasya, Turkey."

The statement did not identify the employee but gave his initials as N.M.C. No other information was provided, and it was not clear whether the employee or any of his family members had been placed under arrest or accused of committing crimes. While the statement said the wife and children were in police custody, there was no indication as to the whereabouts of the consulate employee.

The U.S. embassy's second-in-charge, Philip Kosnett, was called to the ministry on Monday meanwhile, where officials conveyed "their expectations" for the United States to halt "the unnecessary escalation" of tensions and to reverse the decision that "victimizes" both Turkish and U.S. citizens, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.

The ministry's top official also discussed the issue with U.S. Ambassador John Bass in a late Sunday telephone call, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.

In a video statement posted on YouTube Monday, Ambassador Bass gave an account of what prompted the U.S. to curtail visa services.

"Here is what led us to this decision: Last week, for the second time this year, a Turkish staff member of our diplomatic mission was arrested by Turkish authorities," he said. "Despite our best efforts to learn the reasons for this arrest, we have been unable to determine why it occurred or what, if any, evidence exists against the employee. The employee works in an office devoted to strengthening law enforcement cooperation with Turkish authorities and ensuring the security of Americans and Turkish citizens."

He continued, "This arrest has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing cooperation between Turkey and the United States."

Bass specified that the action is not a ban on Turkish citizens traveling to the U.S. but a halt on processing new, non-immigrant visa applications.

"If you have a valid visa, you can still travel to the United States. If you want to apply for a visa at another U.S. embassy or consulate outside of Turkey, you are free to do so," he s aid.

Despite the seemingly friendly relations between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ties between the two countries are tense over the arrest of Metin Topuz, a U.S. Consulate employee of Turkish nationality, and other Americans over alleged ties to a movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government blames for last summer's failed coup. Gulen denies involvement.

Topuz is accused of espionage and "attempting to overthrow the Turkish government and constitution." Turkey's official Anadolu news agency reported that he allegedly communicated with former police chiefs in a 2013 corruption probe, 121 people involved in the attempted coup and hundreds of people using an encrypted mobile messaging application.

The U.S. Embassy said it was "deeply disturbed" by the arrest and has complained of reports in Turkey's pro-government media that it said aimed to try Topuz in the media instead of a court of law.

Topuz's arrest came about six weeks after Erdogan called it a "scandal" that a U.S. court had decided to indict 19 people -- among them 15 Turkish security officials -- accused of attacking peaceful demonstrators gathered outside the Turkish ambassador's Washington home during a visit by Erdogan.

Erdogan said the security officials were protecting him from members of an outlawed Kurdish militant group after U.S. police failed to. One of those indicted was the head of Erdogan's security operation. He called the indictments "a clear and scandalous expression of how justice works in America." 

Other Americans held in Turkey include Pastor Andrew Brunson who was detained last year and is accused of terror-related charges for alleged ties to Gulen's movement. Erdogan has linked the pastor's possible release or deportation to Washington agreeing to extradite Gulen to Turkey.

The Turkish lira recorded a sharp drop against the dollar on Monday, following the mutual suspension of visa services.