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Turkey condemns Sweden protests and cancels ministers' meeting

Karl Ritter and Zeynep Bilginsoy, Associated Press

Turkey has cancelled a planned visit by Sweden's defence minister in response to anti-Turkish protests that increased tension between the two countries as Sweden seeks Turkey's approval to join Nato.

A far-right activist from Denmark received permission from police to stage a protest outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm where he burned the Koran, Islam's holy book.

A separate pro-Kurdish demonstration was held later on Saturday in the Swedish capital.

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said the scheduled January 27 visit by his Swedish counterpart Pal Jonson no longer held “any importance or point,” because Sweden continued to allow “disgusting” demonstrations against Turkey.

Mr Jonson tweeted that he had met Mr Akar on Friday in Ramstein, Germany, where they “agreed to postpone” the meeting in Ankara.

“Relations with Turkey are very important for Sweden and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defence issues at a later date,” he wrote.

The bid by historically non-aligned Sweden and Finland to join Nato in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been held up by Ankara, which has accused Sweden in particular of being soft on Kurdish militants and other groups that Turkey considers security threats.

The Swedish government's efforts to improve relations with Turkey have been complicated by demonstrations by pro-Kurdish activists, which have infuriated Turkey's government.

On Saturday, anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan added to the tensions by staging a Koran-burning protest outside the Turkish embassy.

Surrounded by police, Mr Paludan carried out his protest while making disparaging remarks about immigrants and Islam.

About 100 people gathered nearby for a peaceful counterdemonstration.

In a separate protest later on Saturday, a few hundred pro-Kurdish and anti-Nato activists marched through central Stockholm.

Demonstrators waved flags of various Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey.

The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the European Union and the United States, but its symbols are not banned in Sweden.

The protesters also held up flags with the face of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan and walked over a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Swedish officials have stressed that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Swedish constitution and gives people extensive rights to express their views publicly, though incitement to violence or hate speech is not allowed.

Demonstrators must apply to police for a permit for a public gathering.

Police can deny such permits only on exceptional grounds, such as risks to public safety.

Turkish officials condemned the Koran-burning protest and Swedish authorities for allowing it.

“Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of ‘freedom of expression' is completely unacceptable. This is an outright hate crime,” Turkey's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Ibrahim Kalin, Mr Erdogan's spokesman, called it a hateful crime against humanity, while Mr Erdogan's nationalist ally, Devlet Bahceli, said parliament would not ratify Sweden's Nato membership “under these conditions”.

A small group gathered outside the Swedish embassy in Ankara to protest against the Koran-burning, holding a banner with a Koranic verse on non-believers.

Earlier in January, an effigy of Mr Erdogan was hung from a lamppost during a protest by Kurds.

Turkey denounced a decision by a Swedish prosecutor not to investigate and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson called the protest an act of “sabotage” against Sweden's bid to join Nato.

Turkey summoned the Swedish ambassador earlier this week and cancelled a visit by the speaker of the Swedish parliament in reaction to the incident.

All Nato members need to ratify in their parliaments the accession requests by Sweden and Finland, which were made after Russia's war on Ukraine prompted the Nordic countries to drop their longstanding policies of military non-alignment.

While Turkey says it has no objection to Nato's growth, it will not ratify the bids until its demands, which include extraditions of alleged terror suspects, are met.

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