ISTANBUL, Jul 16 – Explosions and heavy gunfire echoed in the Turkish capital and military helicopters buzzed overhead early Saturday, as the armed forces claimed to have seized “full control” of the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted his continuing power and called on supporters to take to the streets to defend his rule.
The chaos in a country that is a NATO ally, regarded as pivotal in the fight against the jihadists of Islamic State, boded ill for a region already roiled by violence. Violence from Syria’s multi-sided war has increasingly spilled across the Turkish border, with the government blaming militants of the Islamic State for a deadly attack last month on the main international airport in Istanbul.
Turkey was also at the center of a migrant crisis that boiled over last summer when thousands of refugees used it as a springboard for the short crossing to Greece, although measures by the European Union have since stemmed that flood. In a fast-developing series of events, tanks and soldiers blocked the entry to Istanbul’s main international airport, the private Dogan news agency reported, and incoming flights were turned away as outgoing air traffic also halted.
Vehicles halted traffic over two major bridges in Istanbul, the country’s commercial capital, and news reports inside Turkey said there had been gunfire and injuries in the vicinity of the bridges. A statement attributed to the powerful military declared that the army had seized control to “ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country.” The military has been a traditional bastion of secularism, while Erdogan has taken an increasingly Islamist tilt since his rise to power in 2002.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denied that what he called limited elements of the military had succeeded in wresting control from the government. Speaking to Turkey’s private NTV television, he characterized events as a coup “attempt” by “certain groups who took arms entrusted to them by the state and pointed them toward the state,” the Associated Press reported.
In Ankara, hundreds of bearded men – backers of Erdogan — walked along a main boulevard toward the prime minister’s office, waving Turkish flags and chanting “God is great!” One marcher called the situation a “mini-war.” The turmoil was reminiscent of coups that rattled Turkey from the 1960s to the 1990s, but Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party had managed to instill a sense of stability in recent years.
Human rights groups and Western governments, though, have expressed deepening concern about a continuing erosion of rights and moves by Erdogan to muzzle dissent, stifle the media and bolster his personal power. The Turkish leader has also launched a punishing war on Kurdish separatists, declaring them to be a far more dangerous threat than the jihadists of the Islamic State.
It was several hours before the president was able to take to the airwaves to denounce the attempt by what he called a “minority” of the Turkish military to take power. For a man who until now controlled most of the country’s news media, he was reduced to communicating with CNN Turk, a television channel he considers to be an opponent, over Facetime.
“They will pay the price, the highest cost at the end,” Erdogan vowed. The Turkish president, who had been on vacation on the Aegean coast, said he would return to Ankara shortly. But that may be difficult to accomplish. The U.S. Embassy in Turkey sent out an alert warning all American citizens to “shelter in place” in light of the reports of violence.
A visiting California academic in Istanbul, David Selim Sayers, reported he had seen stores shuttering their doors, people rushing for their cars, and long lines of people outside corner stores and ATMs. In a dorm at Bosphorus University, where Sayers is a guest lecturer, he said there was a rush on a vending machine selling Oreo cookies.
“We don’t know how it’s going to go,” said Sayers, who teaches at San Francisco State University, “but people are preparing for the worst.” The apparent spearheaders of the uprising, a military faction calling itself the “Peace at Home Council,” accused the president of destroying the constitutional order and undermining the secular democratic state. The group’s name evokes a phrase used by Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founding father.
Erdogan blamed the uprising on Fetullah Gulen, a retired Islamic cleric and former political ally, who once had a sizeable following in the Turkish police, judiciary and military. The president has purged the police and judiciary of reputed Gulen sympathizers over the past two years, and had been due to hold a meeting of the body overseeing the military, the High Military Council.
There were reports he was planning to oust anyone still linked with Gulen. Gulen, whose movement denied any involvement, now lives in exile in Pennsylvania, and Erdogan has tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to obtain his extradition to face allegations of supporting terrorism.