Turkish government says situation under control; air base used by U.S. closed

Posted at 1:25 PM, Jul 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-16 13:25:35-04

Turkey’s government said Saturday it was firmly in control after a coup attempt the night before sparked violence and chaos, leaving 161 people dead.

Friday’s uprising by some members of the military is the latest worrying example of deteriorating stability in a country that a few years ago was being promoted to the wider Muslim world as a model of democratic governance and economic prosperity.

Some 14 years after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party swept to power in elections, Turkey once again teeters on the brink.

The turmoil exposes deep discontent within the military ranks and a defiant Erdogan has vowed to purge those traitorous elements. But less than 24 hours after the attempted putsch, questions remained about who masterminded it and why they decided to act now.

Key air base closed

Turkish military authorities, meanwhile, closed the airspace around Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base — the site Turkey allows the United States to use for operations related to its air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq — a U.S. defense official told CNN on Saturday.

This has led to a halt in U.S. airstrike missions from that location, the official said on condition of anonymity. Turkish officials told the United States that the airspace has been closed until they can make sure all elements of the Turkish air force are in the hands of pro-government forces after Friday’s coup attempt, the U.S. official said.

Still, a small number of U.S. planes that already were on missions before the airspace closed have been allowed to return and land at Incirlik, the official said, adding that there is no clear understanding about how long the airspace closure will last.

Earlier, the U.S. consulate in Adana reported that power to the base had been cut and local authorities were preventing movement onto and off the site. The consulate warned U.S. citizens to avoid the area.

The base is home to the Turkish Air Force and the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing, which includes about 1,500 American personnel, according to the base website.

Uprising ‘under control’

The latest developments came just hours after Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the situation in Turkey was under control, with all military commanders back to work.

“Our nation in this incident has shown a great resilience,” Yildirim said. “Those who have done this uprising should understand this reality that no one can play games with the stability of this country and the love of freedom and democracy.”

Chaos broke out Friday night when military tanks rolled onto the streets of Ankara and Istanbul and soldiers blocked the famous Bosphorus Bridge. Blasts rang out, leaving stunned residents wondering what was going on.

The Turkish military claim of a takeover was read by an anchor on state broadcaster TRT. She said the military imposed martial law.

The military said it seized control of the country to maintain democratic order, adding that the “political administration that has lost all legitimacy has been forced to withdraw.”

The attempted coup appeared to lose momentum after Erdogan returned from a vacation at the seaside resort of Marmaris and declared his government was in control. But by the time he re-emerged after hours of silence, dozens of people had died in the violence.

Of the 161 deaths, most were police officers killed in a gunfire exchange with a helicopter near the Parliament complex in Ankara, Turkey’s NTV reported. It said the building was damaged.

An additional 1,140 people were wounded, said Yildirim.

A total of 2,839 military officers were detained, a source in the President’s office said. And the Ankara chief public prosecutor’s office took nearly 200 top Turkish court officials into custody, Anatolian News Agency reported Saturday.

The officials include 140 members of the Supreme Court and 48 members of the Council of State, one of Turkey’s three high courts.

8 seek asylum in Greece

A Turkish helicopter carrying eight men landed in Greece Saturday and the men aboard requested political asylum, Greek government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili said.

In response to this news, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted that Turkey has “requested the immediate surrender of eight heinous soldiers who escaped to Greece with a helicopter.”

Later, he tweeted that Greece agreed to return the “traitors” as soon as possible.

Earlier, Gerovasili said Greece was considering the asylum request, and the helicopter — which landed at an airport in Alexandroupoli, near the Turkish border — would be returned to Turkish authorities. The helicopter landed after issuing a distress signal regarding a mechanical failure, she added.

How the night’s violence unfolded

Witness Katherine Cohen, an American who’s staying in an Istanbul hotel, said she heard a loud explosion at sunrise, and gunfire and jets all through the night.

For much of the night, fighter jets flew low over Istanbul while armored vehicles streamed across a main bridge in the city. Gunshots rang out on Bosphorus Bridge, sending pro-government protesters to the ground.

In Ankara, gunfire rang overnight as jets circled above.

“When I stuck my head out, I could see helicopters shooting,” said Diego Cupolo, a photojournalist in Ankara.

He said he could see tracer rounds zip through the air.

Bombs were thrown at the Parliament building in Ankara. A helicopter the government says was stolen by coup plotters was shot down by an F-16.

Erdogan emerges

As the morning wore on, crowds emptied out of Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where many gathered the night before.

In Istanbul, a defiant Erdogan addressed the throngs, telling them that the coup had been quashed.

“The government is in control,” he told supporters as they chanted his name. “Fifty percent of the people elected the President and that President is on duty.”

He said those involved will be dealt with.

“So far as we believe, so far as we’re alive, we’ll be prepared to die in the cause to tackle these people … we’re not going to compromise.”

The surrender

Shortly after dawn, video footage showed soldiers surrendering en masse. At least 200 soldiers turned themselves in to police in Ankara, Turkish state media reported.

They walked away from tanks and abandoned their posts on the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Turkish Airlines resumed flights out of Istanbul Ataturk airport, which had earlier been overrun by protesters.

Erdogan called the attempted coup “treason” and took to task the forces he apparently suspects of masterminding it.

“Now I’m addressing those in Pennsylvania,” he said, in an apparent reference to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric and former ally who lives in exile in Pennsylvania.

“The betrayal you have shown to this nation and to this community, that’s enough. If you have the courage, come back to your country. If you can. You will not have the means to turn this country into a mess from where you are.”

In a statement, Gulen denied any connection to the coup attempt and said he condemned it.

Erdogan’s rise to power

Erdogan was elected Prime Minister in 2003. Under his rule, Turkey became a powerhouse in the Middle East. His reign came to an end in 2014, and his own party’s rules prevented him from seeking a fourth term.

He ran for president — and won. Before this, the president of Turkey was a largely ceremonial role, but Erdogan tried to change that by altering the constitution to give him more power.

Under Erdogan, who is extremely conservative, religion had started to play a more important role in Turkey, which is a largely secular country. He was active in Islamist circles in the 1970s and 1980s.

How did Turkey get here?

Today, the Turkish government is simultaneously battling two deadly terrorist organizations — ISIS and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Society is widely polarized between people who love or loathe Erdogan. Security services routinely use force to crush attempts at public protests against the government. Human rights groups constantly criticize the government for the arrest of critical journalists.

The violence has also taken its toll on the tourism industry and the value of the country’s currency.