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Turkey to freeze assets of 'US justice, interior ministers' says Erdogan

Move comes after Washington imposed sanctions on Turkish ministers following row over imprisoned pastor
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the "new goverment's 100 days action plan" meeting in Ankara (AFP)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he has asked Turkish authorities to freeze the assets in Turkey of the United States ministers of "justice and interior," in response to Washington's sanctions over the detention of an American pastor.

"Today I will give our friends instructions to freeze the assets in Turkey of the American justice and interior ministers, if they have any [such assets]," Erdogan said in a televised speech on Saturday, without specifying exactly to which members of the administration he was referring.

The US Attorney General is Jeff Sessions and while the US does not have an interior ministry similar to Turkey, the Secretary of the Interior is Ryan Zinke and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is Kirstjen Nielsen.

On Wednesday, Washington moved to block the assets of Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in the United States and prohibit US citizens from "engaging in transactions with them".

Turkey's foreign ministry in response said it would retaliate against Washington's decision, calling it a "hostile stance". It urged US President Donald Trump to reconsider the sanctions.

In a statement announcing the sanctions, the US Department of the Treasury said Gul and Soylu are the leaders of organisations that have engaged in "serious human rights abuse".

Speaking on Saturday, Erdogan insisted that, despite the tensions, Turkey did not want to see a "lose-lose" scenario emerge in ties with the US.

"We don't want to be a party to lose-lose games. Moving political and judicial disputes into an economic dimension will be harmful for both sides," he said.

US pastor Andrew Brunson has been accused by Turkey of having ties to the movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for a failed coup in 2016.

The pastor, who led a Protestant church in the Aegean city of Izmir, is also accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by both Ankara and Washington.

Brunson, who was arrested in 2016 and is now under house arrest pending trial, denies the allegations.

The pastor, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, faces as many as 35 years in jail if found guilty.

Trump had earlier threatened Ankara with "large sanctions" if Brunson was not released.

'Simply unacceptable'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Singapore on Friday, their first meeting since the crisis began.

Both Cavusoglu and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described the conversation as constructive.

"They agreed to continue to try to resolve the issues between our two countries," Nauert said.

Speaking to Turkish television channels, Cavusoglu struck an upbeat tone.

"Of course you can't expect all issues to be resolved in a single meeting," he said. "But we have agreed to work together, closely cooperate and keep the dialogue in the coming period."

Berat Albayrak, Turkey's finance and treasury minister and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's son-in-law, on Friday played down the idea that strains between the two countries would continue in the long term.

“The two countries have a strong, historical relationship. This morning’s meeting showed the will to work together. We are now at a better point than yesterday with the US. Our relationship will never be cut,” he said.

Speaking on Friday ahead of the meeting, Pompeo said that US sanctions on Turkey showed that Washington is "very serious" about Brunson's release. 

"The Turks were on notice that ... it was time for Pastor Brunson to be returned," Pompeo told reporters in Singapore. 

"Brunson needs to come home, as do all the Americans being held by the Turkish government. 

"They've been holding these folks for a long time. These are innocent people."

On the sanctions, he said: "I hope they'll see this for what it is, a demonstration that we're very serious."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement: "Pastor Brunson's unjust detention and continued prosecution by Turkish officials is simply unacceptable. President Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States expects Turkey to release him immediately."

The Turkish lira, which has been in decline against the dollar for most of 2018, fell to a record low of five to the dollar on Wednesday, after dropping 1.7 percent following the sanctions announcement. 

Two Turkish employees of US consulates in Turkey are also in jail on terrorism charges and another is under house arrest, while several Americans have been caught up in the crackdown that followed a failed 2016 coup.