ANKARA (TURKEY) (AFP) – US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey on Wednesday for critical talks with its leadership as Ankara launched a military operation to drive Islamic State jihadists out of a key Syrian border town.
In the highest-ranking visit by a Western official since Turkey’s July 15 failed coup, Biden will seek to repair relations with its NATO ally after the putsch, which Ankara blames on Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey has repeatedly called on the US to extradite Gulen, who vehemently denies Ankara’s claims that he ordered the attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Washington confirmed on Tuesday that Turkey had made a formal request for the extradition of the cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999.
“We can confirm now that Turkey has requested the extradition of Mr Gulen. But I wouldn’t characterise the request as relating to the coup attempt,” deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
Relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained because the US says it needs evidence rather than allegations of Gulen’s involvement.
Turkish officials warn that if he is not extradited, relations will suffer further and anti-American sentiment will deepen in the country.
Biden will hold talks with Erdogan as well as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim but his first meeting will be with parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman, the White House said.
The US number two is the only senior figure in the administration of President Barack Obama to have built a close personal relationship with Erdogan, after two face-to-face meetings in Turkey in the last two years alone.
Biden’s visit came as Turkey launched its most ambitious operation involving fighter jets and elite ground troops from the Syrian town of Jarabulus which lies directly opposite the Turkish town of Karkamis.