* Three ministers' sons, businessmen detained
* Halkbank offices searched by financial police
* Influence of Islamic cleric seen behind moves
* Turkish shares slide on fear of political row
By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL, Dec 17 Turkish police detained sons of
three ministers along with some prominent businessmen in a
corruption inquiry on Tuesday, state officials said, in what was
widely seen as a challenge to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan by a
powerful Islamic cleric.
Police carried out dawn raids in the main commercial city
Istanbul, detaining around 20 people including business figures
close to Erdogan, and searched the headquarters of state-run
Halkbank in the capital Ankara, state officials and
banking sources said. Halkbank shares fell 13 percent.
Turkish commentators linked the sweep to U.S.-based cleric
Fethullah Gulen, whose followers have long held influential
positions in institutions from the police and secret services to
the judiciary and Erdogan's AK Party.
"Those who are supported by dark forces and gangs cannot set
the course of this nation, of this country," Erdogan said in an
apparent reference to Gulen's network during a speech in the
conservative central Anatolian city of Konya.
"No one from outside or inside can stir things up in my
country and lay ugly traps."
Gulen could not challenge Erdogan at the polls and has shown
no intention of forming a party. But with his influence, not
least in the AKP, he could undermine the authority of a man who
has dominated politics for a decade. Erdogan's decline, though
yet a distant prospect, would create huge uncertainty.
Gulen helped Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party win a
growing vote in three elections since 2002; but a bitter row
between the two in recent weeks risks fracturing their support
base before local and presidential elections next year.
Asked in Konya about the detentions, Erdogan declined to
comment on an active legal process. The AK Party said in a
statement it had always fought corruption and would continue to
do so and that everyone was equal before the law.
Erdogan has infuriated Gulen supporters with plans to
abolish private "prep" schools, many run by their Hizmet
(Service) movement, providing funding and new followers.
But the rift has deeper roots in ideological differences,
with many of Gulen's followers seeing him as a more progressive
and pro-Western influence on Turkey than Erdogan, whose views on
issues from abortion to alcohol consumption have led to growing
accusations of interference in Turkish private life.
"It is a very bold move by the movement, one that you can't
possibly ignore. It is a battle to curb each other's power,"
Ahmet Sik, a journalist detained for a year over his book on
Gulen's life and influence, said of Tuesday's events.
There was no direct comment from the Hizmet movement.
"There are efforts to deflect attention and point to the
Hizmet movement in the ongoing operation," Huseyin Gulerce, a
columnist with the Gulen-linked Zaman daily, wrote on Twitter.
"How can people who are said to have been purged from the
judiciary and police have carried out the deepest operation in
the history of the Republic?" said Gulerce who, though respected
in Hizmet does not speak for the movement.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Turkey holds local polls in 2014 that will test Erdogan's
power after a year that has seen unprecedented protests and
riots against what some opponents see as an authoritarian style
of government. He remains broadly popular but an open rift with
Hizmet could make him vulnerable to challenge.
The main opposition Republican People's Party filed a
parliamentary question asking Erdogan whether he would resign or
seek a vote of confidence over the corruption operation.
Tuesday's operation, launched by the chief prosecutor in
Istanbul, appeared to consist of three investigations.
One involved Halkbank, one of Turkey's biggest banks, which
said it had been asked to supply information and documentation
to the authorities. Police also searched the headquarters of the
Agaoglu Group of construction magnate Ali Agaoglu, 59, its chief
executive Hasan Rahvali told Reuters.
"We are talking about a wide-scoping investigation here. It
is not focused on Ali Agaoglu," Hasan Rahvali, chief executive
of Agaoglu Group, said. "They searched the company in the early
hours this morning but could not find any criminal evidence."
He said Ali Agaoglu had been asked by the police to come and
make a statement as part of the investigation.
Turkey's largest housing developer Emlak Konut GYO
, partly state-owned, said its general manager had
also been summoned by police. Its shares were down 12 percent.
DEEPENING POLITICAL ROW
The sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler, Economy
Minister Zafer Caglayan and Environment and City Planning
Minister Erdogan Bayraktar were detained, according to state
officials in Ankara and Turkish newspaper reports.
Officials from the three ministries could not immediately be
reached for comment.
Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu told reporters the
investigation was continuing and he could not comment. Officials
from Erdogan's ruling AK Party could not immediately be reached
and police also declined to comment.
The developments, and fears of a deepening political row,
weighed on Turkish markets. The main stock index fell
almost five percent, well below a 0.2 percent rise in the wider
emerging markets index.
"These are fairly seismic developments. I guess inevitably
people will link these to internal AK Party fissures and the
battle between Erdogan supporters and the Gulen movement," said
Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank.
"The gloves will now be off."
Gulen runs a network of schools and other social facilities
across the Middle East, Asia and Africa from a compound in the
United States. He moved to the United States in 1999 after being
charged with attempting to undermine the secular state.
He was later acquitted but has remained in Pennsylvania, an
enigmatic figure who gives little hint of his intentions in
AKP member of parliament Hakan Sukur, a well-known follower
of Gulen, quit the AK Party on Monday in protest over the prep
Since he came to power, Erdogan has built his own body of
wealthy loyalists, largely from the same religiously minded
professional class that reveres Gulen.
Erdogan was first elected in 2002 and has introduced
sweeping reforms that have broken the political power of the
military and stimulated the economy. Some secularists accuse him
of imposing Islamist values, something he denies.