ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Turks to remain on the streets Saturday, as his forces regained control after a spectacular coup bid by discontented soldiers that claimed more than 250 lives.
After hours of chaos and violence unseen in decades, Erdogan ended uncertainty over his whereabouts, flying into Istanbul airport in the early hours where he was cheered by hundreds of supporters.
“The situation is completely under control,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said outside his Ankara offices, flanked by Turkey’s top general.
Erdogan used his Twitter feed to urge people onto the streets, warning against a new flare-up after the most dramatic challenge to his 13 years of dominant rule.
“We should keep on owning the streets tonight no matter at what stage (the coup attempt is) because a new flare-up could take place at any moment,” he said.
Soldiers and tanks took to the streets late on Friday and multiple explosions rang out throughout the night in Ankara and Istanbul, the two biggest cities of the strategic NATO member of 80 million people.
Describing the attempted coup as a “black stain” on Turkey’s democracy, Yildirim said that 161 people had been killed in the night of violence and 1,440 wounded.
This did not appear to include 104 rebel soldiers killed overnight, in a toll given by the military.
As the dust settled on a dramatic and chaotic night, TV pictures Saturday showed extensive damage to the parliament building in Ankara that was bombed by rebel jets.
‘Treason and rebellion’
Crowds of flag-waving supporters of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appeared to have turned the tide, defying orders of a curfew and marching out onto the streets to block the attempt to overthrow the regime.
Yildirim said the putsch bid had fallen apart as nearly 3,000 soldiers suspected in involvement were detained.
The strongman denounced the coup attempt as “treachery”, saying he was carrying out his functions and would keep on working “to the end.”
“What is being perpetrated is a treason and a rebellion. They will pay a heavy price for this act of treason,” Erdogan said at the airport. “We will not leave our country to occupiers.”
Erdogan’s critics have long accused him of undermining modern Turkey’s secular roots and of sliding into authoritarianism — but the president was believed to have won control of the military after purging elements who opposed him.
Erdogan immediately pinned the blame on “the parallel state” and “Pennsylvania” — a reference to Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, his arch-enemy whom he has always accused of seeking to overthrow him.
But the president’s former ally “categorically” denied any involvement in the plot, calling the accusation “insulting.”
Yildirim took aim at the United States for hosting what he called “the leader of a terrorist organization.”
“Whichever country is behind him is not a friend of Turkey and in a serious war againstTurkey,” he added.
After the night’s fast-moving events, Turkey’s parliament held an extraordinary session, broadcast live on television, while special forces were reportedly securing the headquarters of the military chief of staff.
Dozens of soldiers backing the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul they had held throughout the night, holding their hands above their heads as they were detained, television pictures showed.
There was chaos in Istanbul as angry crowds took to the streets to boo the passing tanks, with smaller numbers welcoming the troops. “The people are afraid of a military government,” a 38-year-old man who gave his name as Dogan told AFP. “Most of them have been in military service, they know what a military government would mean.”
The sound of F16 fighter jets screaming low over the capital Ankara signaled the start of the putsch late Friday, with troops also moving to block the two bridges across the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul.
As protesters took to the streets, an AFP photographer saw troops open fire on people gathered near one of the bridges, leaving dozens wounded.
Soldiers also shot at protesters angrily denouncing the coup bid at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, injuring several.
Turkish army F-16s launched air strikes against tanks stationed by coup backers outside the presidential palace in Ankara. Regular explosions could be heard from the AFP office situated near the complex.
World leaders concerned
World leaders appealed for calm, with US President Barack Obama and other Western countries urging support for the government they said had been democratically elected.
The attempted coup brought new instability to the Middle East region, with Turkey a key powerbroker in the ongoing Syria conflict.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for “restraint and respect for democratic institutions,” while Moscow said it was “deeply concerned” by the developments, which it warned would increase the threat to regional stability.
“Everything must be done to protect human lives,” said a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he hoped Turkish democracy will “emerge stronger.”
In a key moment in the standoff, Turkish security forces rescued the country’s top army general Hulusi Akar who had reportedly been taken hostage in the earlier stages of the coup bid.
Istanbul authorities sought to get life back to normal with the bridges reopening to traffic and Ataturk International Airport — which had been shut down by the plotters — gradually reopening.
Coup bid ‘to restore order’
After the initial dramatic military movements, state broadcaster TRT said the troops behind the putsch had declared martial law and a curfew, in a statement signed by a group calling itself the “Council for Peace in the Homeland.”
It said the coup had been launched “to ensure and restore constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms and let the supremacy of the law in the country prevail, to restore order which was disrupted.”
No named military officer claimed responsibility for the actions although Prime Minister Binali Yildirim claimed a key pro-coup general had been killed.
Turkey’s once-powerful military has long considered itself the guardian of the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
It has staged three coups since 1960 and forced out an Islamic government in 1997. AFP