Erdogan culls nearly 1,400 from army, overhauls top military council

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ANKARA: Turkey dismissed nearly 1,400 more members of its armed forces and stacked the top military council with government ministers on Sunday, moves designed by President Tayyip Erdogan to put him in full control of the military after a failed coup.

The scale of Erdogan’s crackdown — more than 60,000 people in the military, judiciary, civil service and schools have been either detained, suspended or placed under investigation since the July 15-16 coup — has unnerved Turkey’s Nato allies, fuelling tension between Ankara and the West.

Adding to the acrimony, Turkey’s EU Affairs minister hit out at Germany on Sunday after its constitutional court upheld a ban on Erdogan making a televised address to a rally of pro-government Turks in Cologne.

The new wave of army expulsions and the overhaul of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) were announced in the official state gazette just hours after Erdogan said late on Saturday he planned to shut down existing military academies and put the armed forces under the command of the Defence Ministry.

According to the gazette, 1,389 military personnel were dismissed for suspected links to the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of orchestrating the failed putsch. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, has denied the charges and condemned the coup.

It comes after an announcement last week that more than 1,700 military personnel had been dishonourably discharged for their role in the putsch, which saw a faction of the military commandeer tanks, helicopters and warplanes in an attempt to topple the government.

About 40 per cent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been dismissed since the coup, in which Erdogan says 237 people excluding the plotters were killed and more than 2,100 wounded.

The government also said its deputy prime ministers and ministers of justice, the interior and foreign affairs would be appointed to YAS. The prime minister and defence minister were previously the only government representatives on the council.

They will replace a number of military commanders who have not been reappointed to the YAS, including the heads of the First, Second, and Third Armies, the Aegean Army and the head of the Gendarmerie security forces, which frequently battle Kurdish militants in the south-east. The changes appear to have given the government commanding control of the council.

Erdogan, who narrowly escaped capture and possible death on the night of the coup, told Reuters in an interview on July 21 that the military, Nato’s second-biggest, needed “fresh blood”.

‘Backsliding’

German media said authorities had decided to bar Erdogan from addressing a rally via videoconference in the city of Cologne on Sunday due to concerns over public order, prompting an angry response from Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik.

“German Constitutional Court’s decision on the anti-coup rally in Cologne is an utter backsliding in freedom of speech and democracy,” he said in English on Twitter.

Germany is home to Europe’s largest ethnic Turkish diaspora.

The rally in Cologne, in which Turks waved national flags and pictures of Erdogan, was one of several planned on Sunday in European as well as Turkish cities and towns.

Four Turkish soldiers killed by Kurdish militants

The aggressive military purges come at a time when the armed forces is stretched by fighting with Kurdish insurgents in south-east Turkey and threats from the IS militants on its border with Syria. Four soldiers were killed by the Kurdish militants on Sunday in two separate incidents, officials said.

Turkey’s military is taking part in the US-led coalition against the IS in Iraq and Syria. Its Incirlik Air Base is used by coalition forces for missions against the IS.

Security was tight in the immediate area around Incirlik on Sunday, Turkish security sources said, before an expected visit by the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford.

While there were rumours on social media that security forces were at the ready on worries about another coup attempt, a US military spokesman at the base said they had not seen an increased Turkish police presence. “It’s business as usual here,” he said, without giving his name. “We are not seeing anything like that.”

Incirlik has seen some scattered protests in the days since the coup as pro-government supporters have called on the United States to extradite Gulen. Washington says it will only do so if it receives clear evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the coup.

Dunford’s visit comes at a delicate time for Turkey’s relations with the United States, given Erdogan’s constant demands for Gulen’s extradition.

Conspiracy theories

Erdogan told broadcaster A Haber on Saturday that Gulen was a “pawn” being controlled by a greater power. “There is a mastermind behind him. That mastermind is the one who took him to the United States and who helped him avoid any judicial process,” he said.

Conspiracy theories have flourished in Turkey since the attempted coup, with one pro-government newspaper saying the putsch was financed by the CIA and directed by a retired US army general using a cell phone in Afghanistan. The United States has denied any involvement and any prior knowledge of the coup attempt.

Erdogan has said that Gulen harnessed his extensive network of schools, charities and businesses, built up in Turkey and abroad over decades, to create a “parallel state” that aimed to take over the country.

The government is now going after Gulen’s network of schools and other institutions abroad. Since the coup, Somalia has shut two schools and a hospital believed to have links to Gulen, and other governments have received similar requests from Ankara, although not all have been willing to comply.

In an unexpected move, Erdogan has said that as a one-off gesture, he would drop all lawsuits filed against people for insulting him. He said the decision was triggered by feelings of “unity” against the coup attempt. It could also be aimed at silencing his Western critics.

Prosecutors had opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president in 2014 after serving as prime minister for 11 years. Those targeted included journalists, cartoonists and even children.

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