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Turkish Leaders Meet With Army Chief Over Alleged Coup Plot

VOA News | Istanbul 25 February 2010

Turkey's leaders met with the head of the armed forces in an attempt to defuse rising tensions over the arrest of senior members of the military. The arrests are part of an investigation into an alleged military plot against the Islamic-rooted government.

The meeting between Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the chief of the Army, General Ilker Basbug, received extensive TV coverage in Turkey.

But despite the high excitement and expectation, observers say the 3-hour meeting turned out to be an anti-climax.

None of those attending spoke to the media, and only a short statement was issued, saying the current situation will be resolved within the constitution. It also said that no institution should be undermined and everybody should act with respect.

Analysts say the meeting for now, it seems, has served its purpose of defusing rising tensions which reached almost fever pitch over the arrest of senior military members earlier this week.

But political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir university says tensions will continue.

"Turkey has just started its demilitarization process, its normalization process, it will take a long time," Aktar said. "And, I think we all should be very watchful and patient."

At the center of the process is an ongoing police investigation into an alleged army coup plot called sledgehammer, in which 20 military officers have already been charged this week. Other former heads of the navy and air force are still being questioned and could yet be charged.

According to media reports the generals in 2003 planned to destabilize the Islamic-rooted government by planting bombs in mosques to provoke an armed conflict with neighbor Greece.

The army which has forced from office four governments since 1960, sees itself as guardian of the secular state. But the chief of the armed forces General Basbug, strongly denies the accusations the army plotted against the government.

Already hundreds of people have been jailed as part of another alleged army-inspired conspiracy against the government called Ergenekon. The government and its supporters say the investigations are central to strengthening democracy in Turkey.

But political columnist Nuray Mert has serious concerns about the direction Turkey is heading.

"There are many depressing examples of replacement of one kind authoritarian regime by another kind or style of authoritarian regime," Mert said. "And I think this maybe the case for Turkey because after this government they don't give any hope for democratic understanding when it comes to criticism. They are totally against any kind of criticism they are employing all sorts of pressure on opposition and opposing voices."

The government dismisses such concerns, saying they have a democratic mandate. But observers say the country remains deeply polarized over the issue, and that divisions will deepen as the present crisis is shifting to the judiciary.

The appointment by the government of special prosecutors to investigate conspiracy against it, has been strongly criticized by senior judges as political interference in the judiciary. These prosecutors are using sweeping powers including detaining suspects for months without trial and widespread use of phone taps including phone taps of senior judges and prosecutors.

As is usual in Turkey, government supporters claim it's another step towards democracy and its opponents say that the country is edging towards authoritarian rule.

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