Turkish foreign minister to head to Germany in rally row

Fulya OZERKAN
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Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an event in Kelsterbach, Germany on Monday

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday he would go ahead with a planned visit to Germany despite local authorities' banning him from making a speech on safety grounds.

The comments came amid a row over the stopping of events in Germany attended by Turkish officials to boost support among expat voters for a referendum in April on expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

"I am going to Hamburg today," Cavusoglu told foreign countries' chief consuls, including Germany's, in Istanbul. "I will meet this evening with our citizens in Hamburg."

He added: "Nobody can and should prevent us from meeting with our citizens."

Local authorities in Germany had called off a rally in the northern city of Hamburg where Cavusoglu was due to speak, citing fire safety concerns.

But the Turkish foreign ministry told AFP a new venue had been found, and Hamburg police confirmed Cavusoglu would meet 150 people from the Turkish community on Tuesday night at the residence of the consul general.

A demonstration calling for a "No" vote in the referendum has meanwhile been planned nearby.

Cavusoglu said he would meet Wednesday with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, whom he called a "friend", at a breakfast in Berlin and visit a tourism fair.

Tensions have been mounting between NATO allies Turkey and Germany over the past week after the cancellation of several rallies where Turkish cabinet ministers were due to whip up support for a "yes" vote in the April 16 referendum.

- 'Great fear' -

Erdogan escalated the crisis over the weekend, likening the cancellations to "Nazi practices," drawing a sharp response from Berlin.

He also warned Germany not to block him from making an appearance if he wished.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's office firmly rejected the Nazi jibe as "absurd and out of place".

Cavusoglu said the rally cancellations were "unacceptable" and reminiscent of practices in the run-up to World War II.

He criticised Germany and several other European countries including the Netherlands, where politicians including Prime Minister Mark Rutte have condemned Cavusoglu's plans to attend a similar rally in Rotterdam.

"We are in a state of great fear," Cavusoglu said. "If we cannot stop the advance of racist parties, Europe will head (back) to the pre-World War II period."

Turkish EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik spoke Tuesday with Michael Roth, state secretary at Germany's foreign ministry, sources in Celick's ministry said.

"Turkish-German relations are not local authorities' responsibility but that of the German state," Celik told Roth, according to the sources.

"We believe this is a systematic obstacle to our government."

- 'Embarrassing'-

Germany is home to a sizeable Turkish community, with some 1.4 million able to vote in Turkey -- a potential electoral goldmine in the Erdogan government's campaign to create an executive presidency.

Cavusoglu accused countries "which we deem as friends" of openly taking sides, slamming it "unacceptable" and "embarrassing".

Turkish-German ties have been strained since a vast crackdown launched by Ankara in the wake of the failed coup bid to oust Erdogan in July 2016.

Mass detentions have alarmed Europe, which has urged Ankara to respect freedoms. Critics say the clampdown has targeted opponents of the government, not merely coup-plotters.

In another development adding to the acrimony Tuesday, Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said he had opened a case against German newspaper Bild for "seriously insulting" Erdogan and himself in a report.

The arrest of Deniz Yucel, a correspondent for Germany's Die Welt newspaper, has also sparked an outcry in Berlin after he was charged in Istanbul with spreading terrorist propaganda and inciting hatred.