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Seven Turkish Officers Charged Over Coup Plot

A soldier stands guard at the entrance of the military quarters of the War Academies while police search the residence of a retired army general in Istanbul.

A soldier stands guard at the entrance of the military quarters of the War Academies while police search the residence of a retired army general in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -- Seven senior Turkish military officers were charged today over an alleged plot to topple a government that secularist hard-liners fear is pursuing a hidden Islamist agenda.

Turkey's top military commanders, who have seen the army's role as ultimate guardian of secularism eroded under European Union-backed reforms, held an emergency meeting late on February 23 and warned in a statement of a "serious situation."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who denies any Islamist ambitions, consulted overnight with his deputy and the interior and justice ministers.

The tension, which has fed speculation that elections due next year could be brought forward, hit investor confidence. Turkish stocks fell more than 4 percent and the lira weakened to a seven-month low against the dollar, while bond yields rose.

Adding to the uncertainty, Turkey's chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya said he was looking into statements made by deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) but had not reached the stage of opening a formal investigation against the party.

Yalcinkaya tried to have the party banned for antisecular activities in 2008. Speculation that he could try again has prompted talk that the government could call a snap election.

AKP, first elected in 2002 in a landslide victory over older, established parties blighted by corruption and accusations of misrule, is also embroiled in a dispute with the judiciary -- another pillar of the orthodox establishment.

Bad Memories

Although the army says the days of coups are over, Turks know their country's history well, having seen four governments of various political hues ousted since 1960.

Though chances for another coup are seen as remote, there is mounting anxiety over what the generals might do next and what strains the situation might produce in the forces' leadership.

Turkey's NATO allies, particularly the United States, want to see the Muslim nation mature as a democracy.

Its prospects of entering the EU depend in part on ending the special status that made the arrest of military personnel, still less a former force commander, by civilian authorities inconceivable until recently.

The tensions were triggered by an unprecedented police swoop on February 22 that detained around 50 serving and retired officers.

The most senior detainees, retired air force commander Ibrahim Firtina and ex-navy chief Ozden Ornek, were being held at police headquarters in Istanbul, while retired Admiral Ahmet Feyyaz Ogutcu and 11 other officers were sent to court for questioning, the CNN Turk news channel reported.

The seven officers charged overnight included four admirals, two retired and two serving, a retired brigadier general, and two retired colonels, state-run Anatolian news agency said.

They have been jailed awaiting trial. Pending a formal indictment, they are accused of belonging to a terrorist group and of attempting to overthrow the government by force.

Six officers were released from custody on February 23 after questioning. It was unclear if they would face charges.