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Turkey okays German defence minister's visit after uproar

Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen attends a cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkey on Monday approved a visit by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to an air base in southern Turkey, reversing its position on an issue that drew angry responses in Germany and further strained tensions between the NATO allies.

Relations soured in May after the German parliament passed a resolution declaring the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces was a genocide, and Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces mounting domestic pressure to hold Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accountable for human rights abuses and other issues.

However, Merkel is counting on Erdogan to ensure the success of an EU deal that sought to stem a flood of migrants through Turkey by offering Turks visa-free travel to Europe, a major factor in Turkey’s decade-long negotiations to join the EU.

A spokesman for the German defence ministry welcomed news that Turkey had now approved a trip by von der Leyen to some 250 German troops at Incirlik air base, saying she would push for visits by German lawmakers at some later point.

No date was immediately available for the trip.

German officials had protested loudly after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week said it was inappropriate for politicians to visit the base, with some lawmakers calling for an end to German deployments in Turkey.

Von der Leyen told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper she would look at the housing situation at the base before finalising a 60 million euro ($66 million) deal for Germany to build new barracks there.

Separately, German lawmakers, human rights activists and non-profit groups filed a civil suit in a German court on Monday against Erdogan and other Turkish officials for what they called “war crimes” in counter-terrorism operations against Kurdish militants that have killed thousands in the past year.

Turkey’s parliament last week granted immunity from prosecution to members of the armed forces involved in those operations, which could make it more difficult to investigate allegations of rights abuses.

Additional reporting by Caroline Copley and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Louise Ireland