A group of nationalist Turkish youths on Wednesday attacked three visiting US sailors in Istanbul, trying to force sacks on their heads in an assault angrily condemned by the US government.
Several dozen members of the nationalist youth group Turkiye Genclik Birligi (Turkish Youth Union/TGB) attacked the sailors in the Eminonu district on the Istanbul waterfront, a popular tourist hub.
They sought to force white sacks onto the heads of the sailors, who were in civilian dress, and chased them across the quayside, shouting “Yankee Go Home” and “Down with US Imperialism”.
The use of hoods was a reference to an incident from the 2003 Iraq war that outraged many in Turkey when US forces in northern Iraq arrested a group of Turkish soldiers, forced hoods on their heads and held them for three days.
The incident inflamed nationalist sentiment in Turkey and formed the basis of the smash-hit 2006 film about Turkish agents in Iraq “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq”.
“We want you to get lost and we are using our right to protest,” the group said it told the sailors.
According to NTV television, 12 people were subsequently arrested.
The sailors were from the USS Ross guided missile destroyer, which was moored in Istanbul after returning from military exercises in the Black Sea, US officials said.
“We find it ugly and disturbing. We condemn that attack,” US military spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters in Washington.
The attack was carried out “by what appear to be thugs on the street,” he said. “We’re working closely with Turkish authorities to have this investigated and get to the bottom of what happened.”
Liberty for the crew of the USS Ross was cancelled for the remainder of the vessel’s stay but the incident appeared to be a “one-off” and would not disrupt “the strong relationship” between Turkey and the United States, he said.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the US embassy in Ankara described the footage of the incident, which was posted on social networks, as “appalling”.
“While we respect the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression, we condemn today’s attack in Istanbul,” it said.
The embassy said it had “no doubt the vast majority of Turks would join us in rejecting an action that so disrespects Turkey’s reputation for hospitality.”
Turkey’s refusal to cooperate with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused a full-blown crisis in relations between Washington and Ankara.
But tension has re-emerged again in recent months over Turkey’s wariness of offering full support to the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
US Vice President Joe Biden is expected in Istanbul on November 21 for talks with Turkish leaders in a visit seen as crucial for smoothing out the current tensions.
The TGB claims to be staunchly loyal to the principles of modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and also stanchly opposed the ruling Islamic-rooted party co-founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.