Turkish police briefly detained four journalists working for the Turkish branch of Russia’s Sputnik news agency, including its editor-in-chief Mahir Boztepe, the agency reported on Sunday.
The four were detained in connection with an investigation by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office into the publication of a controversial article on Saturday by the English edition of Sputnik, titled “The stolen province: Why Turkey was given a corner of Syria by France 80 years ago.”
Their detention follows rising tensions between Russia and Turkey over clashes in Syria last week.
The article said Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, bordering Syria, was given to Turkey in 1939 after a disputed referendum, while the city actually belonged to Syria.
The editor Boztepe was detained in the agency’s Istanbul office, while the other three were apprehended in Ankara.
The detentions were first revealed by Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Rossiya Segodnya which owns Sputnik, who had also criticized the incidents, saying, “Turkey, what is this?”
The probe into Boztepe was on suspicion of “degrading the Turkish people, the Turkish state, state institutions” and “disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state”, according to Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu (AA).
The three Sputnik staff members earlier went to Ankara police to complain as their homes had been attacked late on Saturday by some people who allegedly shouted nationalist slogans, insults, and threats, and tried to force their way into their homes, Sputnik Turkey wrote.
“What appears to have been a coordinated attack came at a time of heightened tensions in Idlib between Syria and Turkey,” Sputnik said on its website.
The attackers, who tried to break the doors while chanting “Turkey for Turks,” “Traitors,” and “Russian spies”, managed to escape before police arrived at their homes. The incident did not result in any injuries.
Sputnik’s Simonyan said she could not contact the three journalists after they went to the police, who then had denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.
Police also searched the Istanbul office of the agency, Simonyan said on Sunday.
Following their release on Sunday, one of the journalists said they had been questioned over “absurd the charges” brought against them regarding the article.
“We were completely absurdly charged over an article that we did not write and have nothing to do with it. We were also told about some video on Youtube, which is allegedly linked with the support of terrorism, but I didn’t even see it, and I don’t understand what it was about. After our explanations, the prosecutor did not find our fault,” the journalist said.
The prosecutor’s office later released a statement, saying the journalists did not commit any offense and were freed.
The release of the four journalists reportedly followed a phone call on Sunday between the foreign ministers of the two countries.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu that the situation with the Sputnik journalists had to be resolved quickly.
Relations between the two countries have become strained after 33 Turkish troops were killed in Syria’s Idlib province in a strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces.
Turkey backs rebel fighters in the region, while Russia supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime by mainly providing it with air power in the assault on Idlib.
On Saturday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to stand aside in Syria and let Turkey fight Syrian government forces alone.
The two leaders are expected to meet for talks in Moscow this week, with the Turkish media outlets saying it would take place on March 5 and with Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov saying it could also be on Friday.
Two Russian state-run news agencies, RIA and TASS, said retaliation measures by Russia against Turkish media would follow soon, citing an unnamed Russian diplomatic source.