The United States has indefinitely suspended handling all regular visa applications in Turkey, escalating a row after a member of staff at the US consulate in Istanbul was arrested.
The US embassy in the capital Ankara said in a statement that until further notice none of its missions in Turkey would issue non-immigrant visas.
“Recent events” had forced the US government to reassess Turkey’s “commitment” to the security of US mission services and personnel in the country, it said.
In order to minimise the number of visitors while the assessment was carried out, “effective immediately we have suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all US diplomatic facilities in Turkey”, it said.
Non-immigrant visas are issued to all those travelling to the United States for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work or study. Immigrant visa services are only for those seeking to live in the US permanently.
Beyond mentioning “recent events”, the statement made no explicit mention of the the arrest by Turkish authorities of a local Turkish staffer working at the US consulate in Istanbul.
The employee was remanded in custody by an Istanbul court late on Wednesday over accusations of links to the group of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for last year’s failed coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The staffer has been charged with espionage and seeking to overthrow the Turkish government.
The US embassy said on Thursday that it was “deeply disturbed” over the arrest and rejected the allegations against the employee as “wholly without merit”.
The statement also condemned leaks in the local press which it said came from Turkish government sources that were “seemingly aimed at trying the employee in the media rather than a court of law.”
But Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has defended the arrest, saying “there must be serious evidence” and pointing to a phone call made from the Istanbul consulate to a key suspect on the night of the coup.
That latest arrest also came after a Turkish employee at the US consulate in the southern city of Adana was arrested in March on charges of supporting the Kurdistan Workers party.
The Adana region is home to the US airbase at Turkey’s Incirlik military airport, where dozens of American nuclear missiles are stored and which serves as a key hub for operations in Syria.
The suspension in accepting applications for and issuing all normal visas is extremely unusual. US missions in Moscow in August suspended the issuing of non-immigrant visas for nine days and then scaled back operations.
There has yet to be an official reaction from Ankara but the pro-government Yeni Safak daily described it as “a scandalous decision from the United States”.
The issue has added yet another bone of contention in the increasingly troubled relationship between Washington and Ankara.
Turkish officials had expressed hope of a new page in Ankara-Washington relations under Donald Trump.
Turkey has pressed Washington for the extradition of the Pennsylvania-based Gulen, who denies any link to the coup bid.
The lack of movement on the issue has further strained ties already fraying over Washington’s support for a Syrian Kurdish militia Ankara deems to be a terror group.
Meanwhile, members of Erdogan’s security detail were indicted by US authorities after clashes with protesters during an official visit this year, infuriating the Turkish president.
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.
Erdogan suggested last month that Turkey could release him in exchange for Gulen but Washington showed little interest in the proposal.