Turkish Military Commanders Questioned in Coup Probe

BY Larisa Epatko  February 23, 2010 at 4:09 PM EDT

Prosecutors in Turkey questioned Tuesday at least 40 people including retired and active duty military commanders detained as part of a sweeping investigation into an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

The suspects included former Air Force chief Gen. Ibrahim Firtina and Navy Chief Adm. Ozden Ornek, along with the former head of the Special Forces, Gen. Engin Alan, and the former head of the 1st Army, Gen. Cetin Dogan, reported Turkish media.

They face charges of attempting to topple the Islamist-rooted government of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and being involved in an illegal organization for that purpose.

“Operation Sledgehammer” was revealed in January by the Turkish newspaper Taraf, which published documents detailing a March 2003 seminar that it said showed anti-government actions were discussed.

But Gen. Ilker Basbug, the head of the army, dismissed the allegations, saying coups in Turkey are a thing of the past, reported the BBC.

Turkey has had four military coups since 1960, the last in 1997.

The investigation comes alongside others in Turkey, including one involving the so-called Ergenekon network in which dozens of defendants allegedly plotted to assassinate public figures and blow up mosques in order to foment opposition against the government and trigger a military coup.

That investigation has been underway since 2007, and criticism has grown as opponents say the trail is being used to arrest academics, journalists and writers known to be government critics.

“This is obviously a process of political score-settling,” said main opposition leader Deniz Baykal, quoted the Agence France-Presse.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was delivering a speech in Spain on Monday when he was interrupted by one of his aides telling him the news of the most recent arrests, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In 2008, the AKP narrowly escaped being banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court for trying to make changes to Turkey’s secular system.