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Germany hopeful relations with Turkey can normalize

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s foreign minister expressed cautious optimism Wednesday that Berlin and Ankara may begin to slowly reel diplomatic relations back to normal, following an escalation of tensions that culminated with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing Germany of “Nazi practices.”

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said talks at a Berlin hotel over breakfast with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the first face-to-face official meeting since the diplomatic crisis began last week, were “good, honest and friendly, but also hard and contentious.”

Over the past week, German municipalities have canceled several events in which Turkish Cabinet ministers had planned to address rallies in Germany in support of a national referendum on constitutional reform that would give Erdogan more powers. Officials have cited issues of overcrowding and fire safety, among other things.

Some rallies have gone ahead, most recently with Cavusoglu himself addressing a crowd in Hamburg late Tuesday night, though not at the venue initially planned.

Germany’s federal government has expressed increasing irritation over Turkish officials using Germany as a campaign platform, though it emphasized that it wasn’t involved in blocking the rallies and couldn’t intercede with the municipalities that did so. About 1.4 million people of Turkish descent living in Germany are eligible to vote in the referendum.

Setting the stage for Wednesday’s meeting, Cavusoglu repeated Erdogan’s assertion late Tuesday, saying Germany’s “practices are similar to those of the Nazi era.”

“There are lines that should not be crossed, and one of those is the comparison with Nazi Germany,” Gabriel said.

Cavusoglu toned down his rhetoric after Wednesday’s meeting, saying only that it seemed Germany was allowing anti-Erdogan campaigners to express their opinions while preventing his supporters from doing so.

“This does not fit democracy,” he said at a Berlin trade fair. “Germany should not take sides.”

Cavusoglu told reporters that the meeting was fruitful and the two sides had agreed to meet again in Turkey at a later date.

“We shared our views in a very sincere atmosphere. We expect to continue this dialogue,” he said.

Adding to the tensions, Turkey arrested German newspaper reporter Deniz Yucel, whom Erdogan has accused of being both a German spy and a “representative” of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group PKK — a claim Germany has dismissed as “absurd” — and has not yet allowed any German consular access to him.

Yucel, a reporter for Die Welt, was detained in Istanbul on Feb. 14 over his reports about a hacker attack on the email account of the country’s energy minister.

Gabriel said he pushed for access to Yucel, who has both Turkish and German citizenship, and lobbied for his release.

Even before the current rift, relations already were strained between the two countries over Germany’s criticism of Erdogan’s crackdown following a failed coup as a flow of Turkish diplomats and soldiers sought asylum in Germany.

Germany has suggested it may not extradite suspects wanted by Turkey in cases it considers politically motivated, which has prompted Erdogan to accuse Germany of having “become a shelter” for terrorists and having no regard for other countries’ national security issues.

The strife comes at a time when the European Union is relying on a migrant deal with Turkey that has significantly cut down the number of migrants crossing into Europe. Erdogan has several times threatened to quit the deal when expressing anger at the actions of European countries. Germany also has reconnaissance aircraft deployed at a NATO base in Turkey as part of the alliance’s fight against the Islamic State group.

On Wednesday, a top German intelligence official said the domestic disputes in Turkey are affecting the security situation in Germany.

Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence service, said the splits seen in Turkish society are being mirrored among Turks in Germany.

“There is a danger that proxy conflicts between supporters of the PKK and nationalist/far-right Turks will escalate,” he said, citing the “high threat potential on both sides.”

Following his meeting with Cavusoglu, Gabriel told reporters that “we agreed that neither side has an interest in permanently damaging the relationship.”

He noted that Germany and Turkey had longstanding ties, and said he hoped their initial meeting would help “bring us step by step back to a better relationship.”

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Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.