By Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Reuters) – America’s highest-ranking military officer sought on Monday to soothe strained ties with NATO ally Turkey, which was angered by the West’s response to a failed military coup and by an apparent U.S. reluctance to hand over the cleric it says was responsible.
The fallout from the abortive coup on July 15, in which more than 230 people were killed as mutinous soldiers commandeered fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in a bid to seize power, has deepened a rift between Ankara and its Western allies.
President Tayyip Erdogan and many Turks have been frustrated by U.S. and European criticism of a government crackdown in the wake of the attempted putsch in Turkey, a country vital to the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State and to stopping illegal migration to Europe.
They have accused Western leaders of being more concerned about the rights of the plotters than the gravity of the threat to a NATO member state.
More than 60,000 people in the military, judiciary, civil service and education have been detained, suspended or placed under investigation since the coup, prompting fears that Erdogan is pursuing an indiscriminate crackdown on all forms of dissent.
Senior Turkish officials rounded on Germany for preventing Erdogan from addressing a rally on Sunday of his supporters in Cologne via video-link. Berlin’s foreign ministry spokesman acknowledged relations were going through a “bumpy patch.”
About 150 protesters, meanwhile, marched to the U.S. embassy in Ankara to protest against a visit by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, the principal military adviser to the American president, who met Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his Turkish military counterpart.
“Coup plotter Dunford get out of Turkey,” the crowd chanted as it marched down a central Ankara street to the embassy, where Turkish police kept them at a distance from the building.
“Dunford go home. Send us Fethullah,” said one banner, in reference to U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose network of followers in the military and state institutions are blamed by Erdogan for orchestrating the coup plot.
The 75-year-old cleric, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, denies any involvement in the failed coup. President Barack Obama has said Washington will only extradite him if Turkey provides evidence of wrongdoing.
Dunford also met U.S. personnel stationed at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, used by the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against Islamic State. The U.S. embassy said Dunford was in Turkey as part of a show of solidarity.
“He will deliver messages condemning in the strongest terms the recent coup attempt and reaffirming the importance of our enduring partnership for regional security,” the embassy said in a written statement.
The scale of the purges, which have seen around 40% of generals and admirals dismissed, along with suggestions from officials that death penalty be reintroduced, has alarmed Western states nervous about Erdogan’s tightening grip.
Erdogan has vowed to rid state institutions of what he has termed the Gulenist “cancer”.
“What’s worrying is that this is a one-man show in Ankara now,” said one senior EU official who has been involved in Turkey’s long-stalled efforts to join the bloc.
“Post-coup emotion is very understandable, but we now see ‘a coup after the coup’,” the official told Reuters.
“‘KILL US’, THEY WILL BEG”
Turkish special forces captured a group of 11 rebel commandos overnight who had tried to seize or kill Erdogan during the coup plot. Drones and helicopters pinpointed their location in forested hills around the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris after a two-week manhunt, an official said.
They were part of a group that attacked a hotel where Erdogan was holidaying on the night of the July 15 coup.
Video footage showed a dozen or so anti-coup demonstrators jeering the 11 detained soldiers, some of whom had swollen faces and bruises. The demonstrators waved Turkish flags and chanted “Traitors! We want the death penalty!”
Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said coup plotters would bitterly regret trying to overthrow the government, in words reflecting the depth of anger among tens of thousands of Turks who have attended “democracy demonstrations” night after night since July 15.
“We will make them beg. We will stuff them into holes, they will suffer such punishment in those holes that they will never see God’s sun as long as they breathe,” Zeybekci was quoted by the Dogan news agency as telling an anti-coup protest in the western town of Usak over the weekend.
“They will not hear a human voice again. ‘Kill us’ they will beg,” he said.
The Turkish foreign ministry summoned the charge d’affaires at the German embassy on Monday over the decision to prevent Erdogan from addressing Sunday’s rally by Turks in Cologne.
The top German court ruled against the live link amid concerns that political tensions in Turkey could spill over into Germany, home to Europe’s largest Turkish diaspora.
“It would be absolutely unacceptable for Germany to even mention democracy, the rule of law, human rights and freedoms to Turkey after this point,” Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag wrote in a furious response on Twitter.
Turkey’s crackdown after the failed coup has made European leaders even more uneasy about their dependence on the country to help stem illegal migration, in return for which Turks have been promised visa-free travel to the European Union.
Turkey will have to back out of the agreement if the EU does not deliver visa liberalization as promised, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as telling Germany’s daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
CIVILIAN CONTROL OVER MILITARY
The coup attempt shocked Turkey, which last saw a violent military power grab in 1980, and shook international confidence in the stability of the country.
Nearly 1,400 more members of the armed forces were dismissed and the top military council was stacked with government ministers on Sunday, moves designed by Erdogan to tighten civilian control over the military.
“Our aim is that we set up such a system that nobody within the armed forces would ever consider a coup again,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told a news conference on Monday.
A restructuring of intelligence structures may follow, he said.
More than 1,700 military personnel were dishonorably discharged last week for their role in the putsch.
The new wave of army expulsions and the overhaul of the Supreme Military Council (YAS), announced in the official state gazette on Sunday, came hours after Erdogan said he also planned to shut down existing military academies and put the armed forces under the command of the Defense Ministry.
Erdogan has said 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.
However, the cleric has condemned the coup and in an interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday repeated his denial that he had been involved in it.
“If there is anything I told anyone about this verbally, if there is any phone conversation, if one-tenth of this accusation (against me) is correct … I would bend my neck and say, ‘They are telling the truth. Let them take me away. Let them hang me,'” he said.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Yesim Dikmen and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul, Mert Ozkan, Tulay Karadeniz and Ercan Gurses in Ankara, Paul Carrel in Berlin, Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Gareth Jones and Pravin Char)