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Former Military Chiefs Held In Turkey Plot Probe

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -- Turkish police have detained former heads of the air force and navy and other senior officers in an investigation into an alleged plot to undermine the Islamist-rooted government and trigger a military coup.

The swoop, one of the largest in European Union candidate Turkey against the secularist armed forces, further raised tensions between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military, which has been implicated in several alleged plots in the past year.

Former air force commander Ibrahim Firtina, former naval commander Ozden Ornek, and ex-Deputy Chief of the General Staff General Ergin Saygun, were among those held, broadcasters said.

Current armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug delayed a trip to Egypt as a result, broadcaster CNN Turk reported. In total seven serving officers and seven retired officers were detained.

Interior Minister Besir Atalay, accompanying Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on an official visit to Spain, said he was being kept informed of developments, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.

NTV said the suspects held in Ankara were being flown to Istanbul for questioning over the "Sledgehammer" plot after police raids in the cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

Neither police or the military had any immediate comment.

Financial markets showed little reaction to the detentions, but Wolfango Piccoli from the Eurasia political risk consultancy said they looked set to trigger another escalation in the tense relations between the military and the AKP.

"The government is now embroiled in an open and bitter power-struggle with the judiciary and the military, raising the risk of a head-on confrontation that would badly damage political stability," Piccoli said.

Such detentions would have been unthinkable in the past for the military, which has ousted four governments in the last 50 years. However, its powers have waned in recent years due to democratic reforms aimed at securing EU membership.

Other senior military officers have been indicted on charges of planning a separate plot to overthrow the AKP, which has its roots in political Islam.

Sowing Instability

According to previous media reports on the Sledgehammer plan, denied by the military, the army had plotted to provoke Greek fighter jets into shooting down a Turkish military jet.

Turkey and neighboring Greece have longstanding territorial disputes and came close to war in 1996 over an islet in the Aegean, though relations have improved in the last decade.

The alleged plot also involved planting bombs in mosques and museums in Istanbul to stir chaos. Last month "Taraf" newspaper said it had obtained 5,000 pages of documents and tapes on the plan which was aimed at justifying an army takeover in 2003.

The military has said documents quoted by the paper were part of a military training seminar but were never meant to be carried out and were not part of a conspiracy.

The latest detentions coincide with rising political tensions due to a clash between Erdogan's government and the secularist judiciary over the arrest of a prosecutor who had investigated Islamic groups.

That prosecutor has been accused of links to an alleged far-right militant network, "Ergenekon." More than 200 people, including military officers, lawyers and politicians, have been arrested in the case since it came to light 2 1/2 years ago.

Critics of the government say the Ergenekon investigation has also been used to hound political opponents.