Three U.S. Navy sailors safe after being roughed up in Istanbul

Turkish nationalists rough up three American sailors who were visiting Istanbul during NATO maneuvers

Radical Turkish nationalists roughed up three U.S. Navy servicemen in Istanbul on Wednesday, shouting “Yankees go home!” and pulling bags down over the sailors' heads.

Video of the incident shows a small group of men carrying a flag emblazoned with images of Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk pelting the sailors with rubbish and paint before encircling them and pulling shopping bags onto their heads.

“Because we define you as murderers, as killers, we want you to get out of our land,” said one of the assailants. “Damn America!”

The sailors were unharmed and were safely back aboard their ship, the guided missile destroyer Ross, which was docked in Turkey following a NATO drill in the Black Sea, according to media accounts citing U.S. officials.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the attack apparently involved about 20 youths who claimed to be from the Turkish Youth Union, a nationalist group. The sailors were not wearing uniforms at the time, he said.

The Navy and U.S. Embassy staff are working with Turkish authorities to investigate the incident. The Navy also will review security procedures for future ship visits, Warren said.

The embassy, located in Ankara, the Turkish capital, condemned the “appalling” attack, which took place in Istanbul’s historic Eminonu neighborhood, where the Bosporus strait meets an iconic inlet known as the Golden Horn.

“We have no doubt the vast majority of Turks would join us in rejecting an action that so disrespects Turkey’s reputation for hospitality,” the embassy said in a tweet.

The video, posted by Turkish news outlets, shows the three sailors fleeing down a street with the mob chasing them.

Nationalist anger against Washington has spiked in Turkey following the recent U.S. aerial bombardment in support of Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State insurgents in the northern Syrian city of Kobani, just south of the Turkish border.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Central Command reported 10 new airstrikes against Islamic State positions near Kobani.

Kobani’s Kurdish defenders are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a Turkish group that has waged a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Both Ankara and Washington label the PKK a terrorist group.

Many Turks despise the PKK, and some nationalists deny the existence of ethnic minorities in Turkey. Some hard-line nationalists have even expressed support for Islamic State’s assault on Kobani’s Kurds.

Local media reported that the attack on the sailors recalled what Turks refer to as the “hood event," which occurred after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

During a raid that year by the 173rd Airborne Brigade in northern Iraq, a dozen Turkish special forces troops were detained and their heads covered with bags, sparking Turkish outrage and damaging diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Ankara and Washington have long been close allies and NATO partners, though differences about the war in Syria have lately elevated tension.

The Turkish government aggressively seeks the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has provided robust aid to many Syrian rebel factions, including Islamic militants.

The Obama administration, which has pressed Turkey to tighten security along its long border with Syria to prevent militant infiltration, views the fight against Islamic State in Syria and neighboring Iraq as a more pressing priority than toppling the Assad government.

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

Follow @mcdneville on Twitter for news out of the Middle East.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

11:35 a.m.: This post has been updated with comment from a Pentagon spokesman.

The story was originally published at 8:51 a.m.

43°