Turkey’s leaders, military chief issue joint call for calm amid tension over alleged coup plot

By Selcan Hacaoglu, AP
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Turkey’s leaders, military try to calm tensions

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s leaders held a rare meeting with the country’s military chief Thursday, emerging to declare that the government’s probe into an alleged military coup plot would be handled strictly according to the law.

The joint statement, issued by President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Gen. Ilker Basbug after a three-hour meeting, appeared aimed at defusing tensions between the Islamic-backed government and the secular elite represented by Turkey’s military.

The government detained over 50 military officers this week in its probe into the coup plot, charging 20 of them in its largest-ever crackdown on the military.

Opposition leaders claim the probe is tinged by politics, a claim rejected by the government. But since Turkey’s military has overthrown four civilian governments since 1960, the public is wary and tense when the country’s two main political forces appear to be heading toward a showdown.

“The public must be assured that matters will be handled in line with the law and everyone should act responsibly not to damage institutions,” the joint statement said.

The statement downplayed the importance of the unusual trilateral meeting, saying the leaders have preferred to hold their routine meetings together this week.

Turkey’s political tensions have worried businesses and investors, shaking the markets as opposition parties called for early elections to end the turmoil.

Television channels quoted Erdogan as saying that “it was a pleasant meeting.” But in pictures and video distributed by the palace, the military chief looked anxious and uneasy. Both Basbug and Erdogan carried briefcases — something unusual — and sat around a small round table.

An analyst said the seeming consensus might be cosmetic.

“The summit meeting was aimed at easing tensions,” said Tufan Turenc, a political analyst for the daily Hurriyet newspaper. “But unfortunately, the institutions are in a position not to trust each other anymore.”

A Turkish court on Thursday formally charged eight more military officers of plotting to topple the government, increasing the number of officers who have been charged and jailed to 20 — including five admirals and three generals.

Police also escorted several other officers — including former chiefs of the navy and air force and the ex-deputy chief of the military — to the courthouse for questioning on Thursday.

Wiretap evidence and the discovery of alleged plans for a military coup drafted in 2003 — a year after the current Islamic-based government was elected — led to the detention of about 50 military commanders by police on Monday.

The court must decide whether to formally charge, arrest and jail them. Some are accused of plotting to blow up mosques and kill some non-Muslim figures to foment chaos and trigger a military takeover.

The Islamic-leaning government appears to be waging a dogged campaign to curb military sway over the country’s political life. Observers say this government’s success in reining in inflation, coupled with its reformist record as it works to join the European Union, appear to have given it the courage to confront the military.

Economy Minister Ali Babacan attempted to ease concerns, saying the government was trying to put the military under civilian rule as in the West.

“Transformations may sometimes be painful,” Babacan said Wednesday. “We are trying to make Turkey’s democracy first class.”

Turkey’s top court warned Wednesday that no one was immune from prosecution if they violate the law.

It is widely believed that Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, then head of the military, did not back his subordinates. He was not implicated in the alleged plot.

Sedat Laciner, head of the Ankara-based think tank USAK, said the military was particularly uneasy over the fact that it failed to punish its own, and that left those officers to the mercy of civilians.

“Today soldiers are on trial in civilian courts, which did not happen before,” he noted.

Associated Press Writer Ceren Kumova in Ankara contributed to this report.

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