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Turkish General Charged In Antigovernment Conspiracy Case

ANKARA (Reuters) -- Turkish prosecutors have charged the highest-ranking serving officer yet, a four-star general, in a widening circle of arrests of officers in a country that has hitherto regarded its military as virtually untouchable.

The charges against General Saldiray Berk follow the detention of scores of officers last week over an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has its roots in political Islam.

Last week's detentions were related to an alleged plan for a military coup in 2003, but the case against Berk is more recent.

Charges laid late on March 1, according to the Anatolia news agency, accused the commander of the 3rd Army of leading "an illegal group which was working to implement the anti-Islamist plan" in the eastern province of Erzincan.

Turkish media reported that the charges brought against Berk and 15 others, including a state prosecutor, involved "Ergenekon," a suspected ultranationalist network said to be plotting to sow chaos in order to justify a military takeover.

More than 200 people, including retired generals, lawyers, and journalists, have been charged in connection with Ergenekon. Critics accuse the government of using the investigation to hound secularist opponents.

The plan in Erzincan is alleged to have involved fomenting nationalist opposition to the government and planting weapons in houses used by followers of influential Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen to create a militant scare.

Gulen has lived in self-exile in the United States since 1999, but critics say his followers have infiltrated the police and courts, and also control newspapers critical of the army.