WASHINGTON/ANKARA (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it strongly objected to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's recent hosting of two leaders of Hamas in Istanbul, prompting a swift riposte from Ankara.
The State Department said the officials were Specially Designated Global Terrorists and the United States was seeking information about one for his involvement in multiple terrorist attacks, hijackings and kidnappings.
A Turkish government statement on Saturday said Erdogan received Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and an accompanying delegation.
On Tuesday, Turkey's foreign ministry said Ankara "fully rejects" the U.S. criticism and called on Washington to use its influence for a "balanced policy" that will help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instead of "serving Israel's interests."
The State Department said the Saturday meeting was the second time this year Erdogan had welcomed leaders of the armed Islamist group that has controlled Gaza for over a decade, after a meeting on Feb. 1.
"President Erdogan's continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza," it said in a statement.
"We continue to raise our concerns about the Turkish government's relationship with Hamas at the highest levels."
In its statement, Turkey's foreign ministry said: "Declaring the legitimate representative of Hamas, who came to power after winning democratic elections in Gaza and is an important reality of the region, as a terrorist will not be of any contribution to efforts for peace and stability in the region."
U.S. ties with NATO ally Turkey have been strained over a variety of issues including Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 defense systems, which prompted Washington to suspend Turkish involvement in its F-35 jet program and threaten sanctions.
Tuesday's exchange came just hours after U.S. President Donald Trump praised Erdogan for releasing American pastor Andrew Brunson last year after two years of detention.
"I have to say that, to me President Erdogan was very good," Trump told Brunson in a meeting with Americans freed from overseas captivity aired on the first night of the Republican National Convention on Monday.
"And I know they had you scheduled for a long time, and you were a very innocent person, and he, ultimately, after we had a few conversations, he agreed. So we appreciate that, and we appreciate the people of Turkey," Trump said.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Editing by Richard Chang and Cynthia Osterman)