Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has furiously condemned the US decision to issue arrest warrants to 12 members of his security detail because of their involvement in a bloody brawl with peaceful protesters in Washington DC last month.
In a dramatic escalation of tensions between two Nato allies, Erdoğan said on Thursday that his government would “fight politically and judicially” against the warrants which had been issued earlier in the day.
The brawl, in which nine protesters were injured, prompted strong reactions in both Turkey and the US, where senior US officials demanded a firm response to the violence.
Washington DC’s Metropolitan police chief, Peter Newsham, announced that arrest warrants were being issued for the 12 Turkish nationals, as well as two Americans and two Canadians.
Shortly after the announcement, the US ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, was summoned to the country’s ministry of foreign affairs and told the US’s actions were “unacceptable”.
The ministry said in a statement that the ambassador was told the decision to issue arrest warrants was “wrong, biased and lacks legal basis”.
“That the brawl in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s Residence was caused by the failure of local security authorities to take necessary measures; that this incident would not have occurred if the US authorities had taken the usual measures they take in similar high level visits and therefore that Turkish citizens cannot be held responsible for the incident that took place,” the statement said.
Erdoğan echoed these statements in televised remarks on Thursday night. “Why would I take my guards to the United States if not to protect myself?” he said.
“They have incarcerated our citizens. How is that possible? … What type of legislation is this? What type of law?” Erdoğan said.
Tensions between the two countries have been high since Barack Obama decided to arm the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as part of the US efforts to fight Islamic State.
The Turkish government considers the YPG a terrorist outfit affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) and was further angered by Donald Trump’s decision to continue working with the group.
The brawl, which occurred as Erdoğan returned from a meeting with Trump at the White House, has pushed the strained relations further, experts say.
“Even though there were smiles and so on at the Trump and Erdoğan meeting, the relationship had certainly not gotten back on an even keel,” said Bulent Aliriza, director and senior associate of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Aliriza said the incident had the potential to further complicate an already troubled relationship.
“This makes it much, much worse,” he said.
“There will be demands for action that may ultimately damage the diplomatic relationship to the point of ambassadors being yanked back – which is unprecedented.”
The US state department confirmed ambassador Bass attended a meeting at the foreign ministry, but would not provide details on the conversation.
Newsham said the warrants were issued with the help of the state department, the US secret service and the US attorney’s office in DC.
“We all saw the violence that was perpetrated against the protesters,” Newsham said. “We’re not going to tolerate this.”
“We are hopeful that those responsible will do their part and present themselves to answer to these charges,” he continued.
Newsham said there was “no probable cause” to seek the arrest of Erdoğan, who was seen watching the protests.
The Washington DC mayor, Muriel Bowser, said the attacks represented “a clear assault on the first amendment” and were not welcome in a city that hosts political demonstrations “month to month”.
“We host millions of people who come to the seat of their government to protest peacefully,” Bowser said. “We support them to make sure they are safe.”
Police said they would release images of the suspects who they had not been able to identify.
The Turkish embassy has said since the 16 May brawl that the protesters were affiliated with the PKK and had provoked “Turkish American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the president”.
Two people were arrested on Wednesday for their role in the clash: Sinan Narin was arrested in in Virginia on an aggravated assault charge and Eyup Yildirim was arrested in New Jersey on charges of assault with significant bodily injury and aggravated assault.
Yildirim appeared in court that day in Newark, where his public defender, David Holman, said Yildirim had received death threats because of the incident.
Two men had also been arrested at the scene of the clash on charges of aggravated assault and assaulting a police officer.
US senator John McCain called for Turkey’s ambassador to the US to be removed from the country because of the fight and to charge those involved with the incident.
“After all, they violated American laws in the United States of America, so you cannot have that happen in the United States of America,” McCain told MSNBC last month. “People have the right in our country to peacefully demonstrate and they were peacefully demonstrating.”
The House committee on foreign affairs echoed the senators’ call in a letter to secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. “Alarmingly, this behavior is indicative of the broad crackdowns on political activists, journalists and religious freedom in Turkey that have greatly harmed Turkish democracy in recent years,” the letter said.
McCain, a Republican, also co-authored a letter with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, to Erdoğan that said his security detail had responded to the protestors in a “wholly unacceptable” way.