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Americans Can Go to Turkey--Still

January 17, 2002|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With the Turkish prime minister at his side, President Bush announced in the Oval Office on Wednesday that he is lifting a ban on Americans traveling to Turkey.

There was only one problem. There never was a ban on travel to Turkey.

As it turns out, Turkey has been on the State Department's "travel sheet"--the lowest level of a four-tier system that provides information for U.S. business people and tourists going abroad. A travel sheet often includes reports on crime and other security concerns in a particular country.

A State Department official, who requested anonymity, said listing a nation on a travel sheet basically aims to send a message of "be careful."

Bush's order will result in a toning down of the cautionary information about conditions in Turkey, officials said.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit perpetuated Bush's error, telling reporters after their meeting: "We have just got the news . . . from the president that the ban on tourism to Turkey is to be lifted. So we will be very happy to see a great number of tourists from the United States."

But a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington told The Times: "There is no travel ban. But I'm not in a position to clarify." The State Department official, told of Bush's remarks, said: "I don't know what the president had in mind, but whatever he said, I'm right behind him."

The officer said the department's three other categories are: a flat-out travel ban; a warning, which he described as, "We're telling you not to go"; and an advisory, which he said is meant as a caution about going to a particular country.

On the State Department's Web page (http://www.state.gov), the travel sheet on Turkey, dated July 5, 2001, notes that "since the 1970s, urban and rural acts of terrorism throughout Turkey have caused loss of life and injury to government officials and civilians, including some foreign tourists."

The Turkish government had asked for a toning down of that warning, said Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman.

The State Department's bureau of consular affairs now will "rework the sheet to more accurately reflect the socioeconomic and military situation on the ground in Turkey--to bring it more up to date," McCormack said. "It's a much more stable situation now in southeastern Turkey."

In his remarks, Bush thanked Ecevit for his support for the war on terrorism and noted Turkey's improving economy.

"And today, I'm informing the prime minister that we're lifting the travel ban on Turkey," Bush added.

"Oh that's wonderful," a smiling Ecevit said, interrupting the president.

Bush continued: "So that our citizens can feel comfortable going to that wonderful country to visit, and to enjoy the rich history of one of our valued allies and friends."

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