Reuters International

Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir reacts during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva

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By Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Turkey said on Friday talks with the European Union on a deal providing visa-free travel in return for stopping a flow of illegal migrants into Europe had reached an impasse and the bloc must find a "new formula" to salvage the agreement.

EU Minister Volkan Bozkir told Reuters that a dispute over Turkey's anti-terrorism laws had become the "Achilles heel" of the migrant deal, in comments likely to further heighten concerns in Brussels about its future.

While the EU is desperate for the deal to succeed, it also insists that Turkey meet 72 criteria, including reining in its broad anti-terror laws. The EU and rights groups say Turkey uses the laws to stifle dissent, while Ankara says it needs sweeping legislation to fight Kurdish insurgents and Islamic State.

"This is the Achilles heel," Bozkir said in an interview with Reuters in Brussels, where he has been trying to persuade European leaders to change their position.

"Only today we lost eight soldiers in a terrorist attack, yesterday there was another suicide attack ... Under these circumstances it is not possible politically to make changes to the anti-terror law," he said, describing Turkey's legislation as "no worse than many other countries".

Eight soldiers and 22 Kurdish militants have been killed in clashes in the largely Kurdish southeast over the last two days, while on Thursday a car laden with explosives blew up near a military base in Istanbul.

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President Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crush the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as Ankara, militarily and has ruled out changing anti-terrorism laws.

Turkey has suffered a series of bombings this year, including two suicide attacks in tourist areas of Istanbul blamed on Islamic State and two car bombings in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a PKK offshoot.

Erdogan has ratcheted up pressure on Europe over the migrant deal, accusing the bloc of setting new hurdles for visa-free travel and threatening that Turkey may go its own way if Europe failed to agree.

"I am not very optimistic about the outcome of the talks we held in Brussels today. It's essential that the European Commission find a new formula," Bozkir told reporters.

European leaders seeking to keep relations with Turkey on track face push-back from both the political right, sceptical about closer integration with a Muslim nation, and the left, who accuse the EU of compromising its principles by negotiating with Erdogan, whose authoritarian tendencies they abhor.

Prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014, including journalists, cartoonists and teenagers. A German satirist is also facing prosecution after mocking him on German TV.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by David Dolan and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton)

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