ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish police detained about 40 people including three retired generals on Wednesday, the state news agency said, widening a probe into an alleged plot to topple EU aspirant Turkey’s Islamist-rooted AK Party government.
Eighty-six people, including retired army officers, politicians and lawyers, are on trial for allegedly being part of a right-wing group in a case that has shattered taboos by opening the powerful military to judicial investigation.
Critics of the ruling AK Party say Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government is using the case as revenge for court moves by the secular establishment last year to outlaw the party for anti-secular activities. The AK Party denies any link.
The Anatolian state news agency said the police operation was launched in six provinces, including Ankara and Istanbul, after an Istanbul court ordered the detentions as well as searches of the suspects’ homes and workplaces.
Police and justice sources were unavailable to comment on the reported arrests.
The retired generals were Kemal Yavuz, Erdal Senel and Tuncer Kilinc, a former chairman of the National Security Council, Anatolian said. Also detained was Kemal Guruz, a former chairman of the secular High Board of Education, which oversees universities.
A colonel, a captain and an ex-police chief were also held.
The military, which has unseated four governments in the last 50 years and views itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s secular order, denies any link to the group, known as Ergenekon.
Media said senior military commanders, led by Armed Forces Chief Ilker Basbug, had convened a meeting late on Wednesday in the General Staff headquarters to discuss the arrests.
Fuelling charges the AK Party is launching a witch hunt against opponents, police in the capital Ankara searched the home of a former prosecutor known for his anti-government views.
Sabih Kanadoglu, who has accused the government of pushing the country toward a “religious dictatorship,” was behind a court decision that prevented parliament from electing Abdullah Gul as president in 2007. He was later elected in a referendum.
The leader of the staunchly secular main opposition party, Deniz Baykal, said the arrests were reminiscent of “regime change times” during the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Financial markets, awaiting developments on an expected IMF agreement to help Turkey weather the global financial crisis, largely ignored news of the arrests.
The defendants in the coup plot case, which has added to political uncertainty, are accused of planning assassinations and bombings to sow chaos and force the military to step in.
Last month, Turkey’s top appeals court ordered that a trial over the 2006 killing of a top judge in Ankara be merged with the Ergenekon trial, for which hearings are being held daily and which is expected to take months to complete.
Some analysts say the Ergenekon case is part of a proxy war between the AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, and secularists played out in courts. (Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia and Daren Butler; Editing by Peter Millership)