'Senior' Turkish naval officer seeking asylum in US – officials

© Reuters
A Turkish military officer is reportedly seeking asylum in the US, in a move that could further strain relations between the two countries. The officer was in the US on a NATO assignment and wanted sanctuary after being recalled to Turkey.

An official at the Turkish embassy in Washington told Reuters that Turkish Navy Rear Admiral Mustafa Ugurlu is missing after he failed to report to the authorities. Turkey issued a detention order against him last month. 

"On July 22, on that day he left his badges and his ID at the base and after that no one has heard anything from him," the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. 

The Turkish official added that he was unaware that Ugurlu had requested asylum in the US, while mentioning that two other low-level naval officers had been recalled to Turkey from the US. 

The Turkish officer was working at the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, which is located in Norfolk, Virginia, according to information obtained by Reuters. 

However, according to two US officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, the officer in question is seeking asylum in the US after being recalled to Turkey by Ankara, following the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

"But there's no detention order for them," the official told Reuters. "One of them has gone back, and the other will go back shortly." 

A spokeswoman at the Norfolk naval base said that a total of 26 Turkish military personnel had been assigned to the NATO command, which is the only one of its kind in North America.

"We want to state that Turkey is a valued NATO ally that continues to make important contributions to the fight against ISIL [Islamic State/IS, also known as ISIS]," US Navy Lieutenant Commander Karen Eifert said, according to Reuters. However, she did not comment on the alleged asylum case regarding the Turkish officer. 

The move is likely to further strain relations between Ankara and Washington, with Turkey adamant that the US hand over cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in North America since 1999. 

President Erdogan believes that Gulen was responsible for organizing a failed coup attempt against him on July 15 and wants the cleric to be extradited to Turkey. Washington has repeatedly responded by saying it needs clear evidence of a link between Gulen and the attempted coup before it will consider complying with Turkey’s request. 

Speaking to RT, Ibrahim Dogus, the founder of the Center for Turkey Studies in London, said he does not believe that the Turkish government has any hard evidence to prove that Gulen is linked to the coup, but accepts that the Gulen movement has been “infiltrating the state for a very long time.” 

“They are using political pressure - and they even [accused] a retired US army general [of] being behind the military coup - rather than legal means which is very difficult. It may take years before they could actually get him extradited even if they could. 

“Right now, President Erdogan needs a victory so that he could prove to his public and supporters that Fethullah Gulen was behind this and he has got him back to Turkey and he will [put him on] trial,” he said. 

The failed coup has led to the Turkish government launching a crackdown against all sections of Turkish society. More than 60,000 people in the military, judiciary, civil service and education have been detained, suspended or placed under investigation due to having perceived links to Gulen. 

Of that total, 16,000 people have been formally arrested and detained, while the cases of another 6,000 are still being processed, the Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Tuesday, as cited by Reuters. 

Turkey’s relations with Greece have also been soured after eight Turkish military personnel sought asylum there following the failed coup.

Three majors, three captains and two sergeant majors flew a military helicopter to the northern Greek border town of Alexandroupolis on July 16, a day after the coup took place and were subsequently arrested. They denied they were involved in the uprising and have since sought asylum. 

"They are afraid to go to Turkey," one of their lawyers, Vasiliki Ilia Marinaki, told Reuters. "They told me that they will definitely be tortured. They told me exactly, 'We are going to beg for death, we are going to be dead anyway.'" 

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said that fugitive soldiers were a security risk and could organize attacks against the Turkish state in the future. 

"We need to be on the alert from now on. The state is on the alert with its all departments. It is cautious to get rid of all kind of possible threats in future," Kurtulmus told the Haberturk television channel, as cited by the Anadolu news agency. The deputy PM added that there are currently 216 fugitive soldiers.