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EU's Tusk urges Erdogan to respect judicial process

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU leaders, urged Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday to ensure fair treatment of recent detainees, a week after sharp exchanges between the bloc and its prospective Muslim member.

In a statement couched in diplomatic language, the former Polish prime minister said he and Erdogan discussed in a telephone call how to improve relations. He said the European Union welcomed Turkey's efforts to care for Syrian refugees.

But referring to the arrests of journalists and others close to an opponent of Erdogan, Tusk added: "We also discussed developments in Turkey, including recent detentions and the importance of an impartial and transparent process in this regard. We agreed to remain in close contact and both looked forward to a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity."

A week ago, Erdogan effectively told the EU to mind its own business after its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and its commissioner in charge of membership negotiations described the arrests as incompatible with the bloc's democratic values.

"We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not, we have no such concern," the Turkish leader had said. "Please keep your wisdom to yourself."

Mogherini had said she was especially surprised by the moves against allies of cleric Fethullah Gulen because they came just days after she led one of the highest-level EU visits to Turkey in years, aiming to revive a relationship that has been strained by European criticism of authoritarian tendencies in Ankara.

The German government said Turkey should remove doubts over its "commitment to basic democratic principles" following the raids on Dec. 14, in which 24 people including executives and former police chiefs were held. On Dec. 19, an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of Gulen, who lives in the United States.

Erdogan has accused Gulen, a former ally, of plotting to seize power. He has purged Gulen supporters from key positions.

The statement by Tusk, who took office this month and hosted his first summit of EU leaders on Thursday, added to impressions that he plans to play a more visible role in diplomacy than his low-key Belgian predecessor Herman Van Rompuy.

Turkey began negotiations to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. But political obstacles, especially over the divided island of Cyprus, and resistance from powerful countries like Germany and France have slowed its progress towards membership.

(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Barbara Lewis and Mark Trevelyan)