Gaza flotilla charity targeted in Turkey power tussle

Turkish aid organisation IHH appears to be the latest target in a tit-for-tat political war taking place in Turkey.

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Turkish security forces detained 25 Al Qaeda suspects in raids across the country on Tuesday, including a relief worker from an aid organisation close to the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The local office of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in Kilis, a town on the border with Syria, was raided by counterterrorism police in the early morning and computers and documents were seized. The Qatari Red Crescent, which has an office in the same building, was also searched.

The raid on IHH, a organisation at the forefront of Turkish efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and internally displaced, was seen as the latest skirmish in a political battle that began in December with a corruption probe aimed at associates of Mr Erdogan.

Followers of the Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who are powerful in the police and judiciary, are believed to have launched the probe in an attempt to shake Mr Erdogan’s grasp on power ahead of municipal elections in March. Former allies, Mr Gulen and Mr Erdogan are seen as engaged in a power tussle over Turkish policy.

The investigations into state corruption sparked a cabinet reshuffle and have seen dozens of Mr Erdogan’s associates detained.

The government responded by reassigning hundreds of police officials across the country and Mr Erdogan introduced legislation aimed at curbing the powers of the judicary.

Following the raid on Tuesday, Mr Erdogan appeared to backtrack on the legislation, saying he would withdraw the bill if opposition parties agreed to constitutional amendments related to the judiciary.

“If the opposition agrees to constitutional changes governing this issue, we will freeze the proposal and if necessary will stop it from reaching the full parliament,” he told legislators from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Mr Erdogan did not specify what the amendments would include.

Despite the offer of compromise, by Tuesday afternoon, the anti-terrorism police chief for Kilis who ordered the raid on IHH’s office was removed from his position and reassigned to a juvenile crime department, according to local media.

Durmus Aydin, IHH vice president, described the raid of the organisation’s office in Kilis, which is home to a large number of Syrian refugees, and detention of the relief worker as an attempt to link IHH to global terrorism.

Allegations that the group was connected to Al Qaeda would “without doubt” hinder IHH’s ability to provide aid to refugees and threaten “those who are working in the field”, he said. “The world is always trying to link IHH to Al Qaeda,” he said, vowing to fight the allegations.

IHH has previously been accused of facilitating support to Syrian rebels fighting the regime of president Bashar Al Assad. On January 1, Turkish security forces stopped a truck loaded with arms and ammunition along the border with Syria, according to local media. The driver claimed to be carrying aid on behalf of IHH.

But Mr Aydin denied that IHH was involved in smuggling weapons to Syria, stressing that the police raid had targeted one relief worker who worked with refugees and “might” have been involved in providing aid to displaced people inside Syria.

“IHH has 300, 350 staff. Some of them might do some wrong but it doesn’t give the right to accuse the organisation,” he said.

IHH is known for sponsoring an aid flotilla that tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. Nine Turkish activists were killed and dozens injured aboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli commandos assaulted the ship.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press