Turkish referendum campaign in Europe fires up tensions

Fulya OZERKAN
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Opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government frequently voice fears that Turkey is sliding toward conservative Islam

Turkey's family minister flew home to Istanbul on Sunday after Dutch authorities expelled her for seeking to woo the vote of expatriate Turks for a key referendum at home.

A crowd waving Turkish flags greeted Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya at the airport, where she said she and her entourage were subjected to "rude and tough treatment".

Her expulsion came after Dutch authorities barred Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from entering the Netherlands, where he, too, had planned to campaign for the April referendum that would boost the powers of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The move fuelled a fierce row that spilled over into violence in the port of Rotterdam where Cavusoglu was to speak.

After several hours of calm demonstrations, police moved in early Sunday to disperse over 1,000 people gathered near the Turkish consulate, charging the crowd on horseback and using dogs to regain control.

Protesters hit back, throwing rocks at riot police, while hundreds of cars jammed the streets blaring their horns and revving their engines.

The Netherlands, which holds general elections on Wednesday, had repeatedly said Cavusoglu was not welcome to campaign for the referendum in the country and refused his plane permission to land.

Cavusoglu, meanwhile, has flown to France where he was set to address a rally in the eastern city of Metz on Sunday.

The French foreign ministry has cleared his visit, a French official said.

The Dutch decision to ban the event in Rotterdam came after Germany and other European nations saw similar campaign events blocked.

Erdogan, who was to address supporters on Sunday, reacted angrily, accusing the Dutch -- who were once under Nazi occupation -- of being "the vestiges of Nazis".

The Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte fired back, saying Erdogan's criticism was "crazy".

- 'Irresponsible' -

Kaya was stopped just outside the Turkish consulate by Dutch police, and after several hours of negotiations escorted back to the German border.

The Dutch government said Kaya was "irresponsible" for attempting to visit after being told she was not welcome and said it told Turkey it could not compromise on public order and security.

In Istanbul on Sunday, a man climbed onto the roof of the Dutch consulate and replace the Dutch flag with a Turkish flag. The flag was later taken down.

The Netherlands is home to some 400,000 people of Turkish origin, and Ankara is keen to harness votes of the diaspora in Europe ahead of the April 16 constitutional referendum on creating an executive presidency.

The Turkish government argues the changes would ensure stability and create more efficient governance, but opponents say it would lead to one-man rule and further inflame tensions in its diverse society.

The latest row came after NATO allies Turkey and Germany sparred over the cancellation of a series of referendum campaign events there.

Germany is home to 1.4 million people eligible to vote in Turkey -- the fourth-largest electoral base after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

Turkish officials repeatedly questioned Berlin's insistence that the cancellations by local authorities were for logistical reasons.

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