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By Ece Toksabay and David Dolan
ANKARA (Reuters) - A U.S. consulate employee in Istanbul was arrested on charges of links to a cleric blamed for last year's failed coup, Turkish authorities said on Thursday, in a move condemned by Washington as baseless and damaging to ties between the NATO allies.
President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman said the locally-employed consulate employee had been in contact with Adil Oksuz, a theology professor who was known as the "Imam of the air force" for his close links to senior officers.
"The arrested U.S. consulate worker was found to have had frequent communication with the FETO suspect Adil Oksuz," Ibrahim Kalin told reporters, using Erdogan's acronym for the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen Erdogan accuses of engineering the coup attempt.
The U.S. embassy in Ankara said it was deeply disturbed by the arrest of the locally employed staff member.
"Baseless, anonymous allegations against our employees undermine and devalue (the) longstanding partnership" between the United States and Turkey, the embassy said in a statement.
Tensions between the two countries have escalated recently over U.S. military support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria, considered by Ankara to be an extension of the banned PKK which has waged an insurgency for three decades in southeast Turkey.
Turkey has also pressed, so far in vain, for the United States to extradite Gulen over the coup in which more than 240 people were killed. Gulen denies any involvement.
Authorities say Oksuz helped orchestrate the bombing of parliament by rogue air force pilots. He was detained near an Ankara air base hours after the failed putsch only to be released by a judge two days later. He has been on the run since.
The arrested consulate employee was identified by Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency as a male Turkish citizen. He was arrested late Wednesday on charges of espionage and attempts to damage the constitutional order and Turkey's government.
Since the coup attempt, more than 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial over links to Gulen, while 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended from jobs in the public and private sectors.
Rights groups and some of Turkey's Western allies have voiced concern about the crackdown, fearing the government is using the coup as a pretext to quash dissent.
The government says only such a purge could neutralise the threat represented by Gulen's network, which it says deeply infiltrated institutions such as the army, schools and courts.
Tensions with the United States have been further fuelled by the indictment last month by a U.S. court of Turkey's former economy minister Zafer Caglayan.
Caglayan and the ex-head of a state-owned Turkish bank were charged with conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran by illegally moving hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on Tehran’s behalf.
Turkey says its former economy minister acted within international law and that charges against him amounted to a coup attempt through American courts.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans)