Trump thanks Turkey for pastor’s release, denies cutting deal

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump thanked Turkey on Saturday for freeing U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson after two years in custody and said it would help improve strained relations, but he denied cutting a deal with Ankara.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump walks towards reporters to speak about the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson by Turkey after the president’s arrival at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport for an evening campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“I don’t make deals for hostages. There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!” Trump wrote in a tweet.

Trump specifically thanked President Tayyip Erdogan “for his help”, drawing a curt response from the Turkish leader, who has repeatedly said it was a court’s decision to make, not his.

“Dear Mr. President, as I always pointed out, the Turkish judiciary reached its decision independently,” Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account. “I hope that the United States and Turkey will continue their cooperation as the allies that they are, and fight together against terrorist groups.”

Brunson, who had been under house arrest since July, was flown out of Turkey on Friday. Trump was scheduled to meet him at the White House later on Saturday.

Relations between the two NATO allies have been strained by U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, and the U.S. jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.

The dispute over Brunson brought new tension to the relationship. Trump authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August, and Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on U.S. cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife Norrine arrive at the airport in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey is in a financial crisis and its lira currency has plunged against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdogan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.

Brunson, who lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was accused of having links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric blamed by Erdogan’s government for a coup attempt in 2016.

Brunson denied the accusations against him and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

In his tweet urging joint action against terrorist groups, Erdogan included the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militant group and a network of Gulen’s supporters that it accuses of trying to overthrow the government.

Erdogan has demanded the United States extradite Gulen to face charges in Turkey.

Even as U.S. officials celebrated Brunson’s freedom, they called on Turkey to also release a Turkish-U.S. national and former NASA scientist in jail on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the U.S. consulate who have also been detained.

Another source of tension between the two countries is a U.S. Treasury investigation into an Iranian sanctions-busting scheme in which senior executives at Turkish state lender Halkbank allegedly conspired with Iranians to transfer Iranian oil revenues out of Turkey.

A U.S. judge sentenced Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla to 32 months in prison in May. Halkbank could face a hefty fine as a result of the probe.

The bank has said all its transactions were legal and Turkey has dismissed the case as politically motivated. It hopes that improved relations with Washington could reduce or prevent the fine against Halkbank.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis

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