Turkey began punishment of the alleged ringleaders behind a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, putting top generals under arrest as government supporters celebrated in city centers that hours earlier were engulfed in bloody gun battles and airstrikes.
Erdogan had promised swift retribution when he arrived at Istanbul’s international airport early on Saturday from a coastal vacation, and blamed followers of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, a one-time ally. “They will pay a heavy price for their treason,” he said.
Later, Erdogan told a crowd of supporters in Istanbul that the U.S. must agree to extradite Gulen to its NATO ally. “Dear Mr. President, I told you this before,” he said, addressing his American counterpart Barack Obama. “Either deport Fethullah Gulen or return him to Turkey.” Gulen denied any connection with the uprising, and there was no additional information to cast light on the motives of the rebels. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would consider any evidence that Turkey presented.
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Almost 200 people were killed during the attempted coup. In raids across Turkey on Saturday, senior generals were among more than 2,800 military personnel arrested. The purge extended deep into the judiciary, with thousands of judges and prosecutors fired. One member of the Constitutional Court, the nation’s top tribunal, was arrested and a warrant has been issued for another, local media said.
Parliament held an extraordinary session in Ankara, and the speaker read out a joint statement from all four parties in the legislature condemning the coup. Defense Minister Fikri Isik said that while the military takeover has been thwarted, and the whole country is under government control, it’s too early to say that the threat has disappeared.
The plot will likely give Erdogan, the Islamist-rooted politician who’s become Turkey’s most dominant leader since the republic’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, more ammunition to crack down on opponents. The president has already drawn charges of growing authoritarianism for suppressing critical voices in the judiciary, media and academic and cultural life. After serving as prime minister for more than a decade, Erdogan is now seeking to transform the largely ceremonial post of the presidency into the center of power.
“Through putting down this coup, Erdogan’s grip on power will be further enhanced,” said Timothy Ash, a London-based strategist at Nomura International Plc. “He has yet again proven his invincibility.”
Still, the attempted coup risks fueling more instability in a NATO member that’s already entangled in the war in neighboring Syria as well as a conflict with Kurdish separatists at home. It also threatens to unbalance an economy that’s dependent on foreign capital flows to offset an entrenched trade deficit.
The lira plunged as much as 6 percent against the dollar in the first hours of the army intervention, as tanks rolled through the streets of Ankara and Istanbul while warplanes and helicopters circled above them. Trading in stocks and bonds had already halted for the day.
The recent pickup in flows of foreign cash into Turkey “will now surely reverse, causing inevitable market distress,” Michael Howell, managing director of CrossBorder Capital, said in an e-mail.
Since 1960, Turkey has experienced at least three army-led takeovers. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party government, which came to power in 2002, made it a priority to curb the military’s political influence, and thousands of officers were jailed in earlier purges. Before their uprising petered out, the coup leaders said in a nationwide broadcast that the president and the ruling party had undermined democracy and the country’s secular system.
Turkey’s NATO and European allies, including the U.S., have often been critical of Erdogan but they were unanimous in condemning the coup attempt and expressing support for his government. Turkey has played a part in operations against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, though not always to the extent the U.S. wanted. It’s also sheltering almost 3 million refugees from those countries, and reached a deal with the EU to halt the flow of migrants further west.
A prolonged reckoning with the Gulenists may undermine Turkey’s ability to perform those roles, and also dim the prospects for investors.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim branded Gulen a “gang leader” during a press conference in Ankara, while deputy premier Nurettin Canikli said the government would ramp up its purge of Gulenists within government positions. “Even if they went into the tiniest veins of the state, they will be purged,” he said.
In December 2013, Erdogan accused Gulen of being behind a corruption probe that threatened his government, and authorities subsequently removed thousands of police and judiciary officials said to be linked to the preacher.
Erdogan and Gulen were once allies with a common enemy: the secularist army, which had managed to keep Islamists from power since Ataturk founded modern Turkey almost a century ago.
Since they fell out, Erdogan’s ability to mobilize the streets has helped give him the upper hand, and he displayed it again as the coup attempt unfolded. Shortly after the news broke, a defiant president urged the public to take to the streets and public squares in resistance. Mosques echoed Erdogan’s call from their minarets, and anti-coup crowds gathered in Istanbul and Ankara, where the bloodiest fighting occurred, and other cities.
Dawn revealed extensive damage to buildings including parliament, the presidential palace and military bases, caught up in the overnight fighting as soldiers clashed with police while helicopters and warplanes from the rival factions fired on targets.
But the tide had turned by the time Erdogan arrived in Istanbul in the early morning. In a symbolic surrender, about 50 rebel soldiers who had been blocking a bridge across the city’s Bosporus strait were shown on television leaving their tanks and armored carriers with hands raised. Other participants attempted to flee. Greek police said they had arrested eight people after a Turkish army helicopter landed in northern Greece.
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