ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s second most powerful military commander called for calm on Wednesday after two prominent retired generals were detained in a widening police investigation into a suspected coup plot against the government.
"Turkey is passing through difficult days. We all have to be acting with more common sense, more carefully and more responsibly," land forces commander General Ilker Basbug, who is due to take charge of the military in August, told reporters.
Police detained 21 people on Tuesday as part of a year-long investigation into Ergenekon, a shadowy, ultra-nationalist and hardline secularist group suspected of planning bombings and assassinations calculated to trigger a military takeover.
Turkish financial markets recovered losses after falling sharply on Tuesday on concerns over prolonged tensions in a country all too familiar with military interventions.
The high-profile detentions of known critics of the government come as the ruling AK Party fights for its survival in court. The chief prosecutor of the Court of Appeals is seeking the closure of the AK Party on charges of Islamist activities. The party denies the charges.
NTV broadcaster reported Istanbul Deputy Chief Prosecutor Turhan Colakkadi as saying an indictment against Ergenekon had been completed and its members would be tried for terrorism.
The detentions of powerful retired first army chief General Hursit Tolon and retired gendarmerie forces commander General Sener Eruygur inside their army residences sent shockwaves in a country where the military has an almost untouchable status.
The military said the raids were within the law. Other prominent figures detained included an editor of newspaper Cumhuriyet, politicians and the chairman of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce–all vocal critics of the ruling AK Party.
"The raids yesterday were reminiscent of previous coups and are not acceptable," Rifat Hisarciklioglu, the influential chairman of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodities Exchanges, said in a speech at the Ankara Chamber of Commerce.
The fresh detentions revived a debate in Turkey over whether the allegations of a coup against the AK Party held water or were used to suppress government opponents, newspapers said.
Small anti-government demonstrations broke out in Istanbul, Izmir, Denizli and Bodrum, Turkish media reported.
Turkey, while predominantly Muslim, has a secular constitution, and the military considers itself the ultimate guardian of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It remains at odds with the AK Party over the role of religion in public life, an issue which has polarized Turkey for decades.
Turkey has had four military coups in the last 50 years. The most recent was a 1997 ‘soft coup’, when the generals edged from power a government they considered Islamist using public and behind-the-scenes pressure.
"I’m watching these events unfold with great concern given Turkey’s history of military interventions. There is clearly a fight between two power groups and no one is yet willing to back down," said a senior EU diplomat, who declined to be named.
The raids came hours before the Constitutional Court began hearing a case in which the AK Party is charged with trying to establish an Islamic state and could be closed, a move that might lead to an early parliamentary election.
The prosecutor also wants Prime Minister Erdogan and other top figures banned from party politics for five years.
The AK Party, which won a sweeping re-election last year, will present its defense in court on Thursday.
Turkish media said the fresh indictment did not yet involve the 21 people detained on Tuesday but 49 others, including retired army officers, lawyers and politicians, already under arrest for suspected links to Ergenekon.
The Ergenekon scandal has shown a spotlight on Turkey’s "deep state", code for ultra-nationalists in the security forces and state bureaucracy who are ready to bend the law or act against the government in pursuit of their political aims.
The military has denied any links to the group.