Turkish military's chiefs step down
Ankara - The chiefs of staff of Turkey's military stepped down on Friday as tensions dramatically increased over the arrest of dozens of officers accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.
The latest developments weren't expected to cause political or military instability in the short term. The government has presided over the strengthening of civilian institutions as well as an economic boom, sidelining the military's political role and reducing the public's appetite for the intervention of the armed forces in non-military matters.
It also doesn't appear the military's operations on the ground, including Turkey's contribution to the Nato force in Afghanistan and its fight against Kurdish rebels, would be affected.
The government responded by quickly appointing the remaining highest-ranking commander, General Necdet Ozel, as the new land forces commander and the acting chief of staff, the prime minister's office announced.
President Abdullah Gul approved the appointment.
General Isik Kosaner resigned as chief of staff earlier on Friday along with the commanders of the navy, the army and the air force.
The resignations highlight the traditional rift in Turkey between staunchly secular circles and the growing power of the government with Islamic roots. In the past, the military - which has seen its influence on politics diminish in the past decade - has periodically purged its ranks of officers thought to be pro-Islamic.
In Brussels, a Nato spokesperson declined to comment on the resignations. Turkey's military is the second-largest in the 27-member alliance. It has about 1 800 troops as part of Nato's 140 000-strong force in Afghanistan.
"We have confidence in the strength of Turkey's institutions, both democratic and military," US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said in Washington. "This is an internal matter."
As the acting chief of staff, Ozel can lead the military in Monday's critical high military council, where new appointments will be debated. The Cabinet might also officially appoint him as the new chief of staff over the weekend.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met with Ozel, who was commander of the gendarme forces before his new appointment. Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said "the state would continue to function.
"The information I received is that they have asked for their retirement," Yildirim said.
The commanders who stepped down decided not to attend a pre-scheduled reception hosted by the embassy of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in a possible move to avoid civilian leaders, NTV television said.
Kosaner had met with Erdogan and Gul earlier on Friday to discuss several key appointments during next week's high military council meeting.
"Right now, 250 generals, admirals, officers, non-commissioned officers and special sergeants remain in jail. They include 173 active duty and 77 retired officers," Milliyet newspaper quoted Kosaner as saying in a farewell message to his ranks.
"As many law experts say, it is not possible to accept that the arrests comply with international rules of law, justice and values of conscience."
Kosaner said: "It has not been possible to solve this situation despite repeated pleas to authorities."
He added that although there have been no verdicts against them, 14 generals and admirals as well as 58 colonels who remain in jail have lost their chances of promotion and "have already been punished".
Kosaner said the crackdown has portrayed the military as "a crime institution". He said he was stepping down since he was not able to protect the rights of his staff.
The officers have been jailed on charges of plotting to overthrow the government in 2003 in a case called the "Sledgehammer".
More than 400 people - including academics, journalists, politicians and soldiers - also are on trial on separate charges of plotting to bring down the government. That case is based on a conspiracy by an alleged gang of secular nationalists called "Ergenekon".
The government hails coup plot trials as a break with impunity. But sweeping roundups of suspects and long confinements without a verdict raised concern about judicial flaws.
In the 2003 case, plotters at an army seminar allegedly discussed mosque bombings and other violent acts that would let the military intervene under the guise of restoring order. The indictment cites an 11-page coup plan.
The government denies the cases are politically motivated and says it is just trying to work to improve democracy.
Erdogan's ruling party, which won a third term in elections on June 12 in a landslide victory, has said its key goal is to replace a military-era constitution with a more democratic one.
The Turkish military has staged three coups and forced an Islamist prime minister to quit. Coup leaders drew on the support of Turks who saw them as saviours from chaos and corruption, but they were often ruthless.
In a 1960 takeover, the prime minister and key ministers were executed. In a 1980 coup, there were numerous cases of torture, disappearance and extra-judicial killing.
Outside of politics, the military enjoys respect and vast economic resources, and is a rite of passage for almost all men who serve as conscripts. The funerals of soldiers who die in fighting with Kurdish rebels receive heavy media coverage.
The military, however, came under severe criticism after Kurdish guerrillas killed 13 soldiers in a single clash on July 14, prompting the government to order its own investigation and consider deploying special police forces to fight the rebels along with Turkish troops.
The military said the troops properly followed the orders and took all security measures, but still asked a court to find out whether there were any flaws.