WASHINGTON/ANKARA (Reuters) - A Turkish delegation will visit Washington this week to discuss growing friction between the NATO allies, according to reports on Tuesday, while Washington said the two countries remained at odds on its core demand that Ankara free American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert acknowledged reports of the visit by a delegation under newly appointed Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal but declined to confirm any meetings between U.S. officials and the Turks.
Broadcaster CNN Turk and Reuters cited diplomatic and Turkish foreign ministry sources in reporting the planned visit, which CNN Turk said would happen in two days.
At a briefing, Nauert confirmed that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Monday but said the two sides had not reached agreement on the release of Brunson, who has been imprisoned by Turkey since October 2016.
Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina, was jailed for allegedly supporting a group that Ankara blames for an attempted coup in 2016. Brunson denies the charge. Washington is also seeking the release of three locally employed embassy staff.
“The kind of progress we want is for Pastor Brunson, our locally employed staff and other American citizens to be brought home. That’s the progress we’re looking for and we’re not there just yet,” Nauert said.
Nauert, when asked whether the countries were close to an agreement over the release of Brunson, said, “It’s certainly a good thing that the Secretary and the foreign minister were able to have a phone call yesterday.”
Relations between the two countries have steadily worsened, strained by differences on Syria policy and Brunson’s imprisonment as well as trade issues. Washington is reviewing Turkey’s duty-free access to U.S. markets while Ankara has
imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods in response to
American steel and aluminium tariffs. The U.S. review could affect $1.7 billion of Turkish exports.
The diplomatic crisis has hurt foreign investor confidence in Turkey, which relies on overseas capital to fund its widening current account deficit. The Turkish currency, the lira, has collapsed this year, putting pressure on banks and corporations, and it hovered close to its record low against the dollar on Tuesday.
Some U.S. officials say Turkey is holding Brunson as a bargaining chip after Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager at Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, was convicted and imprisoned in the United States in May for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
Ankara has demanded that Atilla serve the remainder of his 32-month sentence in Turkey.
Last week, Washington imposed sanctions on President Tayyip Erdogan’s justice minister and interior minister, saying they played leading roles in organizations responsible for Brunson’s arrest. Erdogan has said Turkey would retaliate against the sanctions.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara said on Tuesday that the United States continued to be a solid ally of Turkey despite ongoing tensions, adding that the two countries had an active economic relationship.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Editing by David Dolan and Cynthia Osterman