US Embassy warns against damage to ties over recurring media claims

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- The US Embassy in Ankara has once again denied remarks attributed in pro-government media to US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone in the aftermath of a corruption probe investigating close allies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoIan, suggesting that the repetition of this claim despite numerous denials from the embassy may harm Turkish-US relations.

Reports that appeared in pro-government newspapers after the eruption of the corruption scandal on Dec. 17 with a wave of detentions quoted Ricciardone as telling European Union ambassadors in Ankara that the US had asked Turkey to cut state-owned Halkbank’s financial ties with Iran. As Turkey did not heed the US’s instructions, Ricciardone reportedly concluded, “Now you are watching the collapse of an empire,” referring to the ongoing investigation into alleged bribery and tender rigging in Turkey.

The US Embassy denied that the ambassador made such a statement, but the alleged remark appeared and kept reappearing in pro-government media outlets, prompting the embassy to make repeated swift statements denying the attributed remarks every time they were published.

In a fresh statement on Wednesday, the US Embassy said it noted with regret that the alleged remark has been continually published in certain media outlets since December.

“As we have stated before, these remarks attributed to Ambassador Ricciardone do not reflect the truth. Ambassador Ricciardone has never uttered this statement,” the embassy said in a statement, released in Turkish, adding that the appearance of remarks he never made are not a sign of “good will.”

“It is our most sincere desire that these unfounded reports will not damage our multi-dimensional and close cooperation,” said the statement.

The remark attributed to Ricciardone appeared most recently in the daily Sabah, one of the pro-government newspapers that had first published it in December. According to the Sabah report on Tuesday, Ricciardone and two senior officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) discussed the alleged remark, as well as the ambassador’s subsequent remarks critical of Turkey’s ban on Twitter — lifted after a Constitutional Court decision — during a meeting on Monday.

Sabah hinted in its report that Ricciardone has admitted to having made the statement about Halkbank. According to the daily, the ambassador said his remarks on Halkbank and the Twitter ban were misrepresented by the media, which selectively published his remarks. “I am disturbed [by the reports] too. Intervening in Turkey’s internal affairs is out of the question. On the contrary, we follow ErdoIan with admiration. We appreciated his leadership,” Ricciardone was quoted as saying during talks with AK Party deputy chairmen Mehmet Ali Iahin and Yasin Aktay.

The report also quoted the ambassador as expressing US discontent over the audio recordings published by a “parallel structure,” including one in which Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutoIlu and other senior officials are heard discussing a possible intervention in Syria. “We will do what is necessary if [Turkish Islamic Scholar Fethullah Gulen] commits a crime,” read the report.

In remarks to the Hurriyet daily last week, Ricciardone revealed that the Turkish government, which has blamed the Hizmet movement inspired by Gulen for incriminating leaks related to bribery and corruption, had raised the issue of Gulen’s extradition, although he suggested that no formal request had been made to that effect.

The Turkish government’s demand for Gulen’s extradition has produced discord between Ankara and Washington. Although ErdoIan said that US President Barack Obama had viewed his request for Gulen to be extradited “positively” and replied by saying, “I got the message,” the White House, in a rare statement, said “the response attributed to President Obama with regard to Mr. Gulen is not accurate.”

The embassy also published a transcript of the ambassador’s remarks following the meeting with AK Party officials on Monday.

According to the transcript of his remarks to the press after the meeting, Ricciardone, while answering to a question on Gulen, said: “We both agreed on the importance of keeping Turkish-American relations on a high level, away from your politics, respectful of Turkish interests and American interests. And we discussed how to aance our cooperation on all the problems of today’s world and all the opportunities as well. So that is what we did.”

In remarks on Dec. 21, ErdoIan implied that Turkey could expel the US ambassador for his alleged remarks on “the fall of an empire.” Speaking at a rally in the northern province of Samsun, ErdoIan struck a defiant tone, adamantly rejecting any wrongdoing and characterizing the corruption case as an international plot to weaken Turkey’s growing economy, stifle its diplomatic clout and topple the AK Party government.

“In recent days, very strangely, ambassadors have been involved in some provocative acts. I am calling on them: Do your job. If you leave your area of duty, this could extend into our government’s area of jurisdiction. We do not have to keep you [Ricciardone] in our country,” ErdoIan told supporters in the Black Sea province, suggesting that the US ambassador could be expelled.

The US administration also warned Ankara in December 2013 not to use bilateral relations as a tool in Turkey’s domestic politics and stated that Turkish officials will not benefit from statements that might poison those relations, following the appearance of the newspaper stories.

(CihanToday’s Zaman)