Several dozen members of the nationalist youth group Turkiye Genclik Birligi attacked US sailors in the Eminonu district on the Istanbul waterfront, a popular tourist hub
Istanbul (AFP) - Turkey on Thursday freed without questioning or charges 12 radical nationalist protesters who attacked three US sailors in the centre of Istanbul in an assault that alarmed the American military.
Several dozen members of Turkiye Genclik Birligi (Turkish Youth Union/TGB) attacked the visiting US sailors on Wednesday afternoon while their vessel the USS Ross was moored in the centre of Istanbul on its way back from exercises in the Black Sea.
They threw red dye and sought to force white sacks as hoods on the sailors in the Eminonu district on the Istanbul waterfront, a popular tourist hub.
The case of the 12 protesters arrested over the action was referred earlier Thursday to the court of justice in Istanbul, the Dogan news agency said.
However they were all later released without charge and without even being questioned by prosecutors, it added.
TGB chairman Cagdas Cengiz said outside the courthouse that it was "our duty as Turkish youths" to attack the soldiers.
"This protest was a salute to all the oppressed nations. From now on, American soldiers will never have an easy time here. They will not be able to go around freely," he said, quoted by the Milliyet daily.
An MP for the mainstream secular opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) also praised the action.
"These young people have done what was necessary. Turks are hospitable but have always sided with the oppressed," said Suheyl Batum.
- 'Ugly and disturbing' -
But the attack -- which came amid tensions between NATO allies the United States and Turkey over the crisis in Syria -- caused alarm in Washington.
"We find it ugly and disturbing," US military spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters in Washington, describing the attackers as "what appear to be thugs on the street."
The USS Ross had been moored in the centre of the city just beneath the Topkapi Palace, the historic home of the Ottoman Sultans.
Shore leave was cancelled for the rest of the stay for the crew after the incident, the Pentagon said.
The Turkish foreign ministry also condemned the incident saying it was "disrespectful" and "could in no way be tolerated".
The USS Ross on Thursday afternoon sailed out of Istanbul as planned and then through the Dardanelles Strait towards the Aegean Sea, the Hurriyet daily said.
The use of hoods in the protest 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 over their heads and held them for three days.
The incident inflamed nationalist sentiment in Turkey and formed the basis of a 2006 action film about Turkish agents in Iraq, "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq".
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 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 loyal to the principles of modern Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and also staunchly opposed the ruling Islamic-rooted party co-founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Its thinking is marked by vehement anti-Americanism and it also strongly opposes Turkey's bid to join the European Union.