Turkish deputy PM airs doubts over assassination plot

ISTANBUL Thu Dec 24, 2009 10:24am EST

Turkish parliament's former speaker Bulent Arinc waves as he walks with local mayors in Istanbul March 15, 2008. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Turkish parliament's former speaker Bulent Arinc waves as he walks with local mayors in Istanbul March 15, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Fatih Saribas

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc voiced doubts on Thursday at media reports that two army officers detained last weekend were part of a plot to assassinate him.

The reports fueled rumors of mounting tension between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party and the armed forces, seen as guarantor of the secular constitution.

"The current situation does not necessarily mean it was an assassination attempt, the speculation may be exaggerated," Arinc told a news conference in Istanbul, in his first public comments since the officers were detained on Saturday.

Though the officers were quickly released, media interest has refused to die down.

Many people say they do not know what to believe because of conspiracy theories that both the government and secularists in the military and bureaucratic establishment engage in dirty tricks to discredit each other.

Opposition nationalist politicians accuse the AK Party of whipping up scares to garner sympathy as the country moves toward a general election due by mid-2011.

Some reports have linked the detained officers to a shadowy ultra-nationalist group called Ergenekon, whose alleged members are on trial for attempting to topple the government.

Some 200 people, including military officers, lawyers and academics, have been arrested during the Ergenekon probe, but doubts about the existence of the group persist.

On Thursday, Erdogan met General Ilker Basbug, the Chief of General Staff, a week after the military commander had warned of the risk of a "conflict between institutions of the state" over the conduct of investigations into the Ergenekon affair.

International and domestic issues were discussed during the routine two-hour meeting, a prime ministerial aide said.

SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR

Turkish markets can be spooked by talk of strains between the government and a military that has staged four coups since 1960, but have shown little reaction so far this week.

But the Ergenekon affair has revived the specter of Turkey's so-called "Deep State" -- militant secularists embedded in the judiciary, armed forces and civil service violently opposed to the AK Party's supposed creeping Islamic agenda.

Several suicides, the latest on Sunday, by officers linked to the Ergenekon probe have added to the air of mystery.

Investors fear a backlash from the armed forces if investigations into various plots end up targeting top brass.

The military issued a statement on Wednesday saying the media was not presenting a full picture of the circumstances surrounding the officers' detention last weekend, and the truth would only come out once an investigation was complete.

Arinc said a security guard at his home in Ankara had called police after seeing a car pass the house several times.

The military statement said the two officers in the car had been running security checks on a military official living in the neighborhood, who was suspected of leaking information.

Police said that one of the officers had tried to swallow a piece of paper when he was first detained, but no incriminating evidence was found when their homes were searched, Arinc said.

"I want to believe with all my heart that Turkey's most honorable, respected and disciplined institution does not have people who could plot such a thing against a deputy prime minister," Arinc said. (Editing by Andrew Roche)

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