Turkish government says situation under control; air base used by U.S. closed

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Turkey military units attempted an uprising against the Turkish government. Credit: DHA

By Ray Sanchez and Sheena McKenzie

CNN

(CNN) — Declaring his government firmly in control, a defiant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday demanded the United States arrest or extradite an exiled Islamic cleric he blames for a coup attempt that ended with at least 161 people dead.

The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, told reporters that putsch attempts have been staged in the past though he did not directly accuse Erdogan of deliberately plunging Turkey into chaos.

The upheaval exposes deep discontent within the military ranks, with Erdogan vowing to purge the traitorous elements. But less than 24 hours after a night of violence, questions remained about who was behind it and why they decided to act now.

Erdogan’s call for U.S. involvement in punishing his rival comes after Turkish authorities closed the airspace around Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, where his government allows the American military to launch operations in the air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

“This country suffered a lot in the hands of the Gulen Movement,” Erdogan told throngs of supporters near his home in Istanbul.

“I call on the United States and President Barack Obama … (to) either arrest Fethullah Gulen or return him to Turkey,” he added. “If we are strategic partners or model partners, do what is necessary.”

Latest example of Turkey’s deteriorating stability

Gulen, a reclusive figure who leads a popular movement called Hizmet, said anyone could have masterminded the coup attempt: nationalists, the opposition.

“It could be anything,” Gulen told journalists through a translator.

“I have been away from Turkey for 16 years,” he said. “I have not been following these developments, therefore, I cannot say anything about that.”

Whoever’s to blame, the uprising by some members of the military is the latest worrying example of deteriorating stability in a country that a few years ago was being promoted to the wider Muslim world as a model of democratic governance and economic prosperity.

Some 14 years after Erdogan’s political party swept to power in elections, Turkey once again teeters on the brink.

At the heart of Erdogan’s rivalry with Gulen is a fundamental division in Turkish society between secularists — some within the country’s top military brass — and Islamists, including the president’s AKP party.

Thousands of military officers have been arrested, including the commander of Turkey’s 2nd Army, Gen. Adem Huduti.

The rift is destabilizing one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East.

On Saturday, the Pentagon said U.S. officials were working with Turkey to resume air operations at Incirlik Air Base.

“In the meantime, U.S. Central Command is adjusting flight operations in the counter-ISIL campaign to minimize any effects on the campaign,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

Key air base closed

For now, American airstrike missions from the base have been halted. Turkish officials told the United States the airspace has been closed until they can make sure all Turkish air force elements are in the hands of pro-government forces, a U.S. defense official told CNN on Saturday.

Still, a small number of U.S. planes on missions before the airspace closed were allowed to land at Incirlik, the official said.

Earlier, the U.S. consulate in Adana reported that power to the base had been cut and authorities were preventing movement on and off the site. The consulate warned U.S. citizens to avoid the area.

Cook said U.S. facilities were operating on internal power sources and the shutdown of commercial power has not affected base operations. He said defense department personnel in the area were “safe and secure.”

The base is home to the Turkish Air Force and the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing, which includes about 1,500 American personnel, according to the base website.

Uprising ‘under control’

On Saturday, before cheering supporters, Erdogan affirmed his control of the government.

“You know how you went out in to the squares?” he asked. “That’s what ruined their plot. And for the next week we need to continue this solidarity, we must keep up these meetings.”

The country’s institutions were “back at work,” he said.

“There are a lot of generals and colonels that were detained but those who want to set the Turkish people and the Turkish military against each other, let us not fall prey to their plot. The military and the people are the same.”

Chaos erupted Friday night when military tanks rolled onto the streets of Ankara and Istanbul and soldiers blocked the famous Bosphorus Bridge.

The Turkish military claim of a takeover was read on state broadcaster TRT. The anchor said the military imposed martial law.

The military said the goal was to maintain democratic order and that the “political administration that has lost all legitimacy has been forced to withdraw.”

But the attempted coup lost momentum after Erdogan returned from vacation at the seaside resort of Marmaris and declared his government in control. By the time he re-emerged after hours of silence, dozens had died in a night of violence.

Of the 161 deaths, most were police officers killed in a gunbattle with a helicopter near the Parliament complex in Ankara, NTV reported. The building was damaged. In addition, Yildirim said, 1,140 people were wounded.

At least 2,839 military officers were detained, a source in the President’s office said. The Ankara chief public prosecutor’s office took nearly 200 top Turkish court officials into custody, Anatolian News Agency reported Saturday.

The officials include 140 members of the Supreme Court and 48 members of the Council of State, one of Turkey’s three high courts.

Those arrested included Huduti and Constitutional Court member Alparslan Altan, CNN Turk reported Saturday.

8 seek asylum in Greece

A Turkish helicopter carrying eight men landed in Greece Saturday and the men aboard requested political asylum, Greek government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a tweet requested “the immediate surrender of eight heinous soldiers.”

But Greece will not necessarily return the alleged coup plotters, the Greek foreign minister said Saturday in a statement, which contradicted Cavusoglu’s earlier claim that the officers would be returned.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said “it will be borne very seriously in mind that the arrested parties stand accused in their country of violating constitutional legality and attempting to overthrow democracy.” The asylum request “will be examined based on the provisions of Greek and international law.”

Gerovasili said the helicopter — which landed at an airport in Alexandroupoli, near the Turkish border — would be returned to Turkey.

A night of violence

Witnesses described hours of chaos in Turkey, including explosions, gunfire and low-flying jets.

Bombs struck the Parliament building in Ankara. A helicopter allegedly stolen by coup plotters was shot down by an F-16.

In Istanbul, a defiant Erdogan addressed throngs of supporters, saying the coup had been quashed.

“The government is in control,” he said amid chants of his name. He vowed to punish those behind the takeover attempt.

The surrender

Shortly after dawn, video footage showed soldiers surrendering. Hundreds turned themselves in to police in Ankara, Turkish state media reported.

They walked away from tanks and abandoned their posts on the Bosphorus Bridge connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Turkish Airlines resumed flights out of Istanbul Ataturk airport, which had been overrun by protesters.

Erdogan was elected Prime Minister in 2003. Under his rule, Turkey became a powerhouse in the Middle East. His reign came to an end in 2014, and his own party’s rules prevented him from seeking a fourth term.

He ran for president — and won. Before Erdogan, the presidency of Turkey was a largely ceremonial role, but Erdogan tried to change that by altering the constitution to give him more power.

Under Erdogan, who is extremely conservative, religion had started to play a more important role in Turkey, which is a largely secular country.

How did Turkey get here?

Today, the Turkish government is simultaneously battling two deadly terrorist organizations — ISIS and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party.

Society is widely polarized between people who love or loathe Erdogan. Security services routinely use force to crush attempts at public protests against the government. Human rights groups constantly criticize the government for the arrest of critical journalists.

The violence has also taken its toll on the tourism industry and the value of the country’s currency.

CNN’s Euan McKirdy, Steve Almasy, Jamie Crawford, Barbara Starr, Ivan Watson, Gul Tuysuz, Kevin Bohn and Amanda Wills contributed to this report.

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