ISTANBUL - Prosecutors in Turkey released a dozen nationalist protesters Thursday who attacked three American sailors in Istanbul the day before.
The release came just ahead of a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and at a time of tense U.S.-Turkish relations.
The protesters had been detained for manhandling the Americans and tossing paint-filled balloons at them while shouting anti-American slogans, but all charges against the protesters were dropped. The sailors, all from the destroyer USS Ross, which was visiting Istanbul, escaped without harm.
Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Taraf newspaper and the website Al-Monitor said the attack and the authorities' reaction were worrying signs of deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations.
"There is this general feeling in Turkey, in the public and amongst politicians, that America is only in the region to pursue its own agenda, against the interests of regional countries," Idiz said. "Given that Turkey is a predominantly Islamic country, there is also the perception that America is generally anti-Islamic. I think when all these are combined, [they] result in these kinds of behaviors and also the kind of leniency we are seeing here."
The attack, carried out by a group called the Turkish Youth Union, apparently was orchestrated by the activists to capture attention. The assault was captured on a video shot from within the group of protesters, and they shouted down the sailors in English.
The attackers surrounded the Americans in central Istanbul and briefly put bags over their heads. When the sailors broke free and ran toward safety, the protesters followed, chanting, "Yankees, go home!"
Pentagon blames 'thugs'
Authorities in Washington reacted quickly. The Pentagon said it was an ugly attack, carried out by "thugs."
Just a few hours after the State Department said the incident was "unacceptable," the Turkish attackers were freed.
"We support the right to peaceful protest," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, "but this event clearly crossed the line, from peaceful protest to violence and threats. U.S. officials are working with Turkish authorities to investigate this incident."
Despite Washington's condemnation, reaction from the Turkish side has been muted; the foreign ministry in Ankara issued a brief statement expressing regret.
Diplomatic observers said Washington was not likely to pursue the matter in light of Biden's visit to Turkey next week.
Washington is pressing Ankara to open up its bases as part of the war against the Islamic State group, but the Turkish government has been critical of the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic radicals. Ankara wants military action by the U.S. allies to be broadened to include the Assad regime in Damascus as well as the Islamic State fighters.
The U.S.-based Pew Research Center reports its surveys indicate anti-American feelings have risen sharply in Turkey, and now are held by more than 70 percent of the population.
Columnist Idiz said he expected diplomatic efforts to paper over the differences between Washington and Ankara, but that deep animosities were likely to remain. He said he saw the attack on the American sailors as part of a worrying trend.
"This is not the first incident," Idiz said. "I presumed Americans were alert to possibility of such incidents and I expect they will be more alert from now on, because the possibility exists and the lenient way the authorities appear to have reacted now, I think, will be an encouragement for such events. This can be interpreted within the general anti-Americanism that is pervasive in Turkey. It's a fact that politicians in Turkey also use this to their advantage."
With general elections set for June, and anti-Americanism playing well in the public arena, observers expect public animosity and political ill will toward the United States will continue for some time.