President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew into Istanbul early Saturday, denouncing an attempted coup by a rogue group of military officers as an act of treason in a live, televised speech.
Hundreds of supporters greeted Erdogan at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He said that Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had given orders to “eradicate” soldiers involved in the uprising and that many arrests of officers were underway.
The Turkish military on Friday said that it had assumed power over Turkey, yet early Saturday, Turkish authorities said the coup attempt had been repelled. Martial law has been imposed across the country.
The situation was fluid through the night, with reports of explosions, including at least two bombs striking parliament in Ankara, gunfire in Istanbul, and reports of a Turkish fighter jet shooting down a helicopter used by coup plotters. Early Saturday, police officers and military traded gunfire at Taksim Square, with reports saying military soldiers then laid down their arms.
A helicopter attack on a police special forces headquarters Friday in Ankara left 17 officers dead, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Western intelligence and military officials are closely monitoring developments in NATO member Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State terrorists. Turkey also supports the moderate opposition looking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Events began Friday when the army put out an email statement, read on Turkish television, saying it had “fully seized control” of the government to protect democracy and maintain human rights.
Speaking to the people
Erdogan, who conducted a FaceTime interview from an unknown location with a local TV station late Friday, urged the Turkish people to go to the streets to protest the soldiers’ actions. He said those behind the move were associated with U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen is a former ally of Erdogan who has accused the president of corruption as part of an apparent power struggle.
In response to the upheaval in Turkey, a nonprofit group serving as a voice for the Gulen movement rebuked the violence.
“We have consistently denounced military interventions in domestic politics,” the Alliance for Shared Values said in a statement. “We condemn any military intervention in domestic politics of Turkey.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling on all parties in Turkey to support the country’s democratically elected government.
Prime Minister Yildirim told private NTV television that the group stormed the main TV station, TRT, and forced broadcasters to read a statement saying a curfew had been imposed. The soldiers also forced CNN Turk off the air.
“The government elected by the people remains in charge. This government will only go when the people say so,” Yildirim said on NTV.
In Istanbul, massive crowds gathered in the city, including Taksim Square, waving flags and shouting support for Erdogan.
Erdogan, who said, “I never believed in a power higher than the people,” vowed that the coup plotters would pay a “very heavy price.”
VOA’s Dorian Jones said the chaotic events came amid growing tensions between Turkey’s secular military and the pro-Islamist Erdogan government, which have been simmering since Erdogan came to power in 2014.
Jones said there have been concerns in Turkey that the airport bombing and other terrorist attacks, the government’s crackdown on Kurds, and Erdogan’s attempts to solidify control over the media could spark a reaction from the military.
By late Friday, a VOA correspondent in Istanbul said police were arresting rogue soldiers. Other pro-coup soldiers were beginning to return to their barracks and would face harsh repercussions, said Turkey’s intelligence spokesman Nuh Yilmaz.
Friday night there were numerous reports that hostages were taken in Ankara. CNN Turk said the chief of military staff, General Hulusi Akar, was among those being held. But Akar had been freed by early Saturday.
Ataturk Airport in Istanbul is apparently closed to traffic, and tanks are blocking the entrance. Security forces had also blocked all traffic from crossing the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges, the two main bridges over the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, but cars appear to be moving again.
Ankara Correspondent Yildiz Yadicioglu said credit cards and ATMs were not working there, with lines forming in front of banks.
Scrambling for information
U.S. military and diplomatic officials were scrambling to try to find out exactly what was going on in Turkey.
A senior U.S. Defense Department official said officials were monitoring the situation closely. “As of this time, there has been no impact to Incirlik Air Base and counter-ISIL air operations from Incirlik continue,” he added, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Former intelligence officer Patrick Skinner said, “The coup really throws regional crises into a different stage.” Skinner now works with the Soufan Group, a New York organization that provides strategic security intelligence services to governments and multinational organizations.
Current and former U.S. intelligence and military officials have long pointed to Turkey’s critical role both in the Syrian refugee crisis and in blocking the flow of fighters and supplies to the Islamic State terror group.
“A military government would likely crack down on ISIS and extremist groups that heretofore the government had perhaps seen more in the light as a tool against Assad than a domestic threat,” Skinner said, using another acronym for Islamic State. “But perhaps the focus shifts a bit as internal needs supersede CT [counterterror] concerns.”
He said it was possible that a military government could look to strengthen its ties with the West, but that there was no way at this point to know for sure.
Issues facing Turkey
There was also concern as to how a series of other issues would be impacted by the apparent coup, including the fate of Turkey’s Kurdish population, and those in Iraq and Syria, too, as well as the involvement of Russia and Iran in the region.
“One would be hard pressed to pick a more destabilizing place for a coup right now,” Skinner said.
Earlier this week, CIA Director John Brennan admitted to disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey, and not just over Syria, where the U.S has repeatedly urged Turkey to do more to crack down on IS.
“There are some things that are going on inside the Turkish political system that are subject to a lot of debate and even controversy,” he said.
“But I’ll just leave it that we do work closely with the Turks,” Brennan added. “I have very close interaction with my Turkish counterpart.”