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World News

Turkey's military chiefs quit ahead of key meeting

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s top military brass resigned on Friday, in the latest and possibly decisive round of a long battle between the traditional secularist establishment embodied by the army and the Islam-rooted government of Tayyip Erdogan that has dominated Turkey for nearly a decade.

The head of Turkey’s military quit on Friday along with the army, navy and airforce chiefs in protest against what he called the unjust detention of 250 military officers held on charges of conspiracy against Prime Minister Erdogan’s government.

The unprecedented move by the High Command in NATO’s second largest armed forces sent shockwaves through Turkey.

It lays open the deep rift between a military badged with the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatruk, founder of the Turkish Republic, and a rival elite represented by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK), with Islamist roots and a vast following in the conservative heartland of Anatolia.

State-run Anatolian news agency said the head of the armed forces General Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the ground, naval and air forces had requested retirement. Some Turkish media initially reported they had resigned.

Kosaner in a farewell message to comrades, reported by Anatolian, made clear he was leaving in protest against a flawed judicial process that has led to the detention of officers caught up in a coup conspiracy case.

“It has become impossible for me to continue in this high office because I am unable to fulfill my responsibility to protect the rights of my personnel as the Chief of General Staff,” Kosaner said.

Some 250 military personnel are currently detained in jail, including 173 serving and 77 retired personnel. Most of them on charges related to an alleged plot in 2003, known as “Operation Sledgehammer.”

“As many jurists have said, it is impossible to accept their detention as being in line with principles of universal law, justice and moral values,” Kosaner said.

More than 40 serving generals, almost a tenth of Turkey’s commanders, are under arrest, accused of a series of convoluted conspiracies to bring down the AK party.

While the Erdogan government is admired at home and abroad for bringing the military under civilian control, the length of time it is taking to bring those accused to trial, and the widening net dragging in more alleged conspirators, is setting off alarm bells.

A prosecutor investigating another alleged plot involving military officers on Friday sought the arrest of 22 people including the commander of the Aegean army, media reports said.

Erdogan’s office made no reference to the commanders’ reasons for retiring in a statement issued later that named General Necdet Ozel, commander of the paramilitary Gendarmerie, as the new land forces chief, and deputy chief of general staff.

“Our Turkish Armed Forces, one of the biggest and most respected in the world, will continue... to do their duty given by laws successfully in a spirit of unity and togetherness,” the statement said.

It went on to say that the Supreme Military Council will meet as planned on Monday for a twice yearly meeting to begin deciding key appointments.

President Abdullah Gul and Erdogan met Kosaner on Friday to discuss the matter.

Since his party came to power in 2002, Erdogan has succeeded in curbing the military’s traditional dominance, using as one of his weapons the reforms needed to advance Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.

Turkey’s generals overthrew three governments between 1960 and 1980, and forced a fourth from power in 1997, but few Turks now believe a chastened military is any longer capable of mounting a coup.

DEEP RESPECT FOR MILITARY

Respect for the military runs deep, however, and Turks were stunned last year, when police rounded up scores of officers and detained them in prison on charges of being part of a plan presented at a military seminar to destabilize Erdogan’s government.

The alleged Sledgehammer plot involved provoking near war with Greece by shooting down one of Turkey’s own warplanes, and planting bombs in Istanbul to sow chaos.

The military says there was never any such plan, the seminar was a war-gaming exercise, and evidence has been fabricated.

Having first come to power in 2002, Erdogan’s AK won a third consecutive term in a parliamentary election in June, scoring 50 percent of the vote.

But Erdogan’s decisive victory against the army came in 2007. The high command attempted to undermine the government, rejecting in a posting on its website current President Abdullah Gul because he had entered politics as an Islamist.

Erdogan called an early election. With support from Turks opposed to military meddling in politics his AK party won a landslide and installed Gul as president.

Dani Rodrik, a professor at Harvard University, who has followed the cases against the military, doubted whether the resignations would precipitate a political crisis, as the AK Party is so strong, but warned of other dangers.

“It could have unforeseen repercussions. Financial markets are very fragile and things like this could effect them badly,” said Rodrik, son-in-law of Cetin Dogan, a senior general accused of plotting against the government.

The Turkish lira weakened sharply on the news to 1.6964 against the dollar from an interbank close of 1.6805 on Friday.

Royal Bank of Scotland economist Timothy Ash said the resignations appeared to be a “symbolic step.”

“Hard to see the military winning this battle, given the ruling AK Party got 50 per cent poll support in the June elections, and now dominates institutions of state,” he added.

Kosaner, who took over as head of the armed forces in August 2010, is regarded as a hardline secularist.

Alongside Kosaner, the land forces head Erdal Ceylanoglu, air forces chief Hasan Aksay and navy commander Ugur Yigit have also sought retirement.

Writing by Daren Butler and Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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