ANKARA/ISTANBUL, July 28 (Reuters) - Turkey’s top brass and political leaders were set to launch a sweeping purge of the armed forces on Thursday after a failed military coup that has shaken the nation of nearly 80 million people and alarmed its NATO allies.
Hours before the Supreme Military Council began its annual meeting in Ankara, the armed forces dishonorably discharged nearly 1,700 personnel for their alleged role in the July 15-16 putsch in which a faction of the armed forces tried to topple President Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan, who narrowly escaped capture and possible death on the night of the coup, told Reuters in an interview last week that the military, NATO’S second biggest, needed “fresh blood.” The dishonorable discharges included around 40 percent of Turkey’s admirals and generals.
Turkey accuses U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen of masterminding the coup and has suspended or placed under investigation tens of thousands of his suspected followers, including soldiers, judges and academics.
In the aftermath of the coup, media outlets, schools and universities have also been closed down.
Citing intelligence reports, Turkey’s justice minister said on Thursday that Gulen, once a powerful ally of Erdogan, could flee his residence in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup.
Western governments and human rights groups have condemned the coup, in which at least 246 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured, but have also expressed concern over the scale and depth of the purges, fearing that Erdogan may be using them to get rid of opponents and tighten his grip on power.
Even before the failed coup, Turkey was struggling with major security challenges including attacks by Kurdish militants and Islamic State, a grim reality underscored by tourism data on Thursday showing a 40 percent fall in foreign visitors in June.
Turmoil in Turkey’s armed forces raises questions about its ability to contain the Islamic State threat in neighboring Syria and the renewed Kurdish insurgency in its southeast, military analysts say.
Among the nearly 1,700 military personnel discharged were 149 generals and admirals, a Turkish government official said late on Wednesday.
Two four-star generals from the land forces also resigned, broadcaster CNN Turk reported, without giving a reason. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said the military council decisions would be announced later on Thursday and take immediate effect.
The Islamist-rooted AK Party, founded by Erdogan and in power since 2002, has long had testy relations with the military, which for decades saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Turkey’s secular order and the legacy of the nation’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The military has ousted four governments in the past 60 years.
However, Erdogan says the armed forces have been infiltrated in recent years by Gulen’s supporters. “The army has to stop being the army of the Fethullah Gulen terrorist organization,” Justice Minister Bozdag said.
In a symbolic sign of how civilian authorities are now firmly in charge, Thursday’s military council meeting was held at the office of Prime Minister Binali Yildirim rather than General Staff headquarters.
Yildirim accompanied senior military officers to pay respects at Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara ahead of the meeting.
“We will surely eliminate all terror organizations that target our state, our nation and the indivisible unity of our country,” Yildirim said in televised remarks at the mausoleum.
Changes since the coup include bringing the gendarmerie, which is responsible for security in rural areas, and the coast guard firmly under interior ministry control rather than under General Staff control.
CNN Turk has reported that more than 15,000 people, including around 10,000 soldiers have been detained so far over the coup, citing the interior minister. Of those, more than 8,000 were formally arrested pending trial, it said.
As the purge pressed ahead, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his ministry had dismissed 88 employees.
The government said on Wednesday it had ordered the closure of three news agencies, 16 television channels, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishers. This announcement followed the shutting of other media outlets and detention of journalists with suspected Gulenist ties.
This month’s events have exacerbated Turkey’s difficult relations with the United States. Washington has responded cautiously to Ankara’s request to extradite Gulen, saying it must provide clear evidence of his involvement in the coup plot.
Bozdag said Gulen’s extradition was an urgent matter, not least because he said Turkey was receiving intelligence that the 75-year-old cleric might flee, possibly to Australia, Mexico, Canada, South Africa or Egypt. Egypt said it had not received an asylum request.
Gulen built up his reputation as a Sunni Muslim preacher with intense sermons. His movement, known as Hizmet, or “Service” in Turkish, set up hundreds of schools and businesses in Turkeyand later abroad. His philosophy stresses the need to embrace scientific progress, shun radicalism and build bridges to the West and other religious faiths.
The United States and the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, have both urged Ankara to show restraint in its crackdown on suspected Gulen supporters and to ensure those arrested have a fair trial.
Amnesty International has said detainees may have suffered human rights violations, including beatings and rape - an accusation roundly rejected by Ankara.
The EU has also bridled at talk in Turkey - from Erdogan down - of restoring the death penalty, a move Brussels said would scupper Ankara’s decades-old bid to join the bloc.
Tourism, a pillar of the economy, has been badly hit by a series of deadly bombings in Turkey, including one at Istanbul’s airport in June that killed 45 people, and by tensions with Russia. Data showing a 40 percent drop year-on-year in June in the number of foreign visitors to Turkey is further bad news for the government. The drop was the biggest fall in 22 years.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley. David Dolan and Seda Sezer in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Peter Millership)