Turkey’s president claims control after dozens killed in attempted coup

Hundreds of soldiers arrested after night of clashes in Ankara, Istanbul and other parts of the country.

Policemen stand on a military vehicle after troops involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. Murad Sezer / Reuters
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ANKARA // President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared he was in control of Turkey early on Saturday as government forces fought to squash a coup attempt during a night of explosions, air battles and gunfire that left dozens dead.

They arrested more than 750 soldiers across the country, fired colonels and generals and rescued the military chief in an operation at an airbase in the outskirts of Ankara.

Mr Erdogan, who was in Istanbul, warned coup supporters that “they will pay a heavy price for their treason”.

“Those who stain the military’s reputation must leave. The process has started today, and it will continue just as we fight other terrorist groups.”

Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu said the military chief of staff, Gen Hulusi Akar, was taking over command of the operation against the coup plotters.

Fighting continued throughout the morning, with huge blasts echoing across the capital and Istanbul, including at least one bomb that hit the parliament complex. Television footage showed images of destruction at the parliament, which according to a legislator was targeted by three bombs.

Government officials said the coup appeared to have failed as Turks took to the streets overnight to confront troops attempting to take over the country.

The chaos caps a period of political turmoil in Turkey that critics blame on Mr Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, which has included a government shake-up, a crackdown on dissidents and opposition media and renewed conflict in the mainly Kurdish areas of the south-east.

Addressing supporters outside Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Saturday morning, Mr Erdogan told the crowd assembled there: “They have pointed the people’s guns against the people. The president, whom 52 per cent of the people brought to power, is in charge. This government brought to power by the people is in charge. They won’t succeed as long as we stand against them by risking everything.”

Justice minister Bekir Bozdag said security forces have defeated coup plotters in several places, including police and government buildings.

“There is nowhere they have they have proper control,” Mr Bozdag said. “God willing, they will be defeated in the remaining areas and those in the air will be brought down.”

Turkey’s police chief Celalettin Lekesiz said 16 coup plotters had been killed in clashes at Turkey’s military police command and 250 others were arrested. Clashes at the command were continuing but “about to come to an end”, he said.

An official in the president’s office said at least 60 people had been killed and more than 330 arrested.

In images broadcast on CNN-Turk, dozens of soldiers walked among tanks with their hands held up, surrendering to government forces on Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge. Discarded gear was strewn on the ground. People, some holding flags, climbed on to the tanks.

Anadolu reported that 754 members of Turkey’s armed forces had been detained across the country. At the Etimesgut armoured units training command, on the outskirts of Ankara, some soldiers who took part in the attempted coup were arrested by fellow officers or soldiers and handed over to police.

Mr Erdogan, who said his general secretary had been abducted by the coup plotters, flew into Ataturk airport early on Saturday and was greeted by large crowds. Hours earlier, as the coup attempt got under way on Friday night, his office declined to say where he was, and he was forced to give an interview over FaceTime to a television station.

Prime minister Binali Yildirim has called an emergency meeting of parliament on Saturday, Anadolu reported.

The US President Barack Obama urged all sides in Turkey to support the democratically elected government. Nator secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said he spoke to Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and called for respect for democracy.

Turkey, a Nato member, is a key partner in US-led efforts to defeat ISIL, and has allowed American jets to use its Incirlik airbase to fly missions against the extremists in nearby Syria and Iraq. A coup against the democratically elected government could make it difficult for the United States to continue to cooperate with Turkey.

The coup attempt began late Friday, with a statement from military officers saying they had seized control “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country, for law and order to be reinstated”.

Fighter jets buzzed overhead, gunfire erupted outside military headquarters and vehicles blocked two major bridges in Istanbul. Soldiers backed by tanks blocked entry to Istanbul’s airport for a couple of hours before being overtaken by pro-government crowds carrying Turkish flags, according to footage broadcast by the Dogan news agency.

But the military did not appear unified, with top commanders taking to television to condemn the action and order troops back to their barracks.

“Those who are attempting a coup will not succeed. Our people should know that we will overcome this,” Gen Zekai Aksakalli, the commander of the military special forces, told the private NTV television.

Fighter jets under the control of loyalist forces were flying over the capital to strike at helicopters flown by coup supporters, the Anadolu news agency said. NTV reported that one helicopter was shot down. Gunfire and explosions rang out.

Mr Erdogan called on Turks to take to the streets across the country, and many did, marching through the streets of Izmir and Istanbul, waving Turkish flags and gathering in the main square in Ankara. Dogan reported that soldiers fired on a group of people trying to cross the Bosphorus bridge to protest the attempted coup, and that some people had been hurt.

Troops also fired in the air to disperse a growing crowd of government supporters at the Taksim monument in Istanbul as military helicopters flew overhead. A nearby mosque made an anti-coup announcement over its loudspeakers. Several blasts and the screech of fighter jets were heard in central Istanbul as dawn approached.

At least 42 people were killed in the capital, NTV quoted the prosecutor’s office as saying. Parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman said a bomb hit a corner of a public relations building inside the parliament complex, injuring some police officers.

Special forces police appear to be deployed in the grounds of the complex, just across the street from the military headquarters.

In Istanbul, an official at Haydarpasa Numune Hospital said at least 150 people were admitted with wounds but would not comment on whether there were fatalities. NTV reported six dead had been brought to that hospital. An official at Istanbul’s Sisli Hamidiye Etfal Training and Research Hospital said they had also received dead and wounded.

Mr Erdogan blamed the attack on supporters of Fethullah Gulen.

He has long accused the cleric and his supporters of attempting to overthrow the government. The cleric lives in exile in Pennsylvania and promotes a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with staunch advocacy of democracy, education, science and interfaith dialogue.

By Saturday morning, a top Turkish official said the coup attempt appeared to have been repelled and all government officials were in charge of their offices.

As the crisis unfolded, there were reports that access to popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook had been blocked within the country. Facebook declined to comment, but Twitter said it suspected “intentional” interference with its service.

* Associated Press