Turkey readies cross-party rally to condemn bloody coup

Sunday 24/07/2016
Mass event will seek to soothe divisions after shock

ISTANBUL - Turkey readied Sunday for its first cross-party rally to condemn the bloody coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his government pressed on with a purge of suspected state enemies.

The mass pro-democracy rally, to be held under tight security on Istanbul's iconic Taksim square, was called by the biggest opposition group, the secular and centre-left Republican People's Party.

But to signal patriotic unity, it will be joined by Erdogan's Islamic-conservative AKP, whose followers have turned city squares red with seas of Turkish flags every night since the failed putsch.

Sunday's mass event, with crowds expected to be boosted by free public transport in the city of 15 million, will seek to soothe divisions after the shock of the July 15 coup and a subsequent government crackdown.

"The Turkish republic is stronger than it was in the past," wrote Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in an editorial in the HaberTurk daily.

"Turkey is on democracy watch ... This watch continues until the anti-democratic elements are cleaned out," he vowed.

The number of alleged conspirators who have been rounded up has surged above 13,000 with soldiers, police, justice officials and civilians all targeted in a purge that has alarmed NATO allies and European leaders.

Turkey has undergone a seismic shift since the night of violence when renegade soldiers sought to topple Erdogan but were stopped by crowds of civilians and loyalist security forces in clashes that claimed 270 lives.

In the latest reaction to the coup, Yildirim said Turkey would disband Erdogan's 2,500-strong Presidential Guard, saying there was "no need" for the elite regiment.

Almost 300 of its officers had already been detained after some guards forced TV news presenters to read statements declaring martial law during the abortive coup attempt.

Under new police powers decreed as part of a three-month state of emergency, all those detained can be held without charge for 30 days.

Also targeted in the sweep was an alleged senior aide to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen -- the reclusive spiritual leader whom Turkey accuses of having orchestrated the plot to overthrow Erdogan.

Security forces detained his aide, Halis Hanci, in the Black Sea province of Trabzon, a senior official said, describing him as a "right-hand man" to 75-year-old Gulen and responsible for transferring funds for him.

The preacher -- who lives in a secluded compound in rural Pennsylvania and whose foundation runs a global network of schools, charities and media interests -- has strongly denied the accusations against him.

Police also detained Kerime Kurmas -- reportedly Turkey's only female fighter pilot -- accusing her of being one of the rebel air force officers who flew thundering F-16 jets low over the roofs of Istanbul on the coup night.

Erdogan's government has also sacked thousands of teachers and university lecturers, and ordered the closure of thousands of schools and associations as it seeks to wipe out what he has called the Gulenist "virus".

Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz said at least 20,000 teachers would be hired quickly to replace those dismissed, with school classes set to resume in mid-September after summer holidays.

European leaders have protested the mass purge, with Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi warning that "a country that jails its own university professors and journalists imprisons its future".

But Turkey has argued that EU leaders simply do not understand the seriousness of the threat to Turkish democracy.

In a sign of the fury felt by Erdogan's inner circle toward Gulen and his movement, Agriculture Minister Faruk Celik said that "to call these people animals is highly insulting to animals".

Gulen's presence in the United States has strained Turkey's ties with its NATO partner which has long stationed military forces on Turkish bases it uses to strike Islamic State jihadists in Syria.

Erdogan has said Ankara will soon dispatch its justice and interior ministers to Washington, where President Barack Obama has said that any solid "evidence" would be looked at seriously under US law.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag has claimed that "America knows that Fethullah Gulen did this coup. Mr Obama knows his name, that's how much he knows, I'm sure of that".