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Alleged coup plot probe roils Turkey

Last week's arrest of senior military officers and the discovery of several weapons caches deepens the investigation into a suspected secularist coup plan.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 2009

Cache? Forensic officers searched for weapons last week in a wooded area in central Ankara, Turkey. More than 40 people have been arrested for suspected links to an alleged coup plot.

Umit Bektas/Reuters

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Istanbul, Turkey

An investigation into an alleged plot by secularist ultranationalists to overthrow the Turkish government deepened with last week's arrest of senior military officers and the discovery of several weapons caches.

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At the same time, there is growing concern that the probe – aimed at tackling longstanding, antidemocratic forces in Turkish politics – could lead to increased tension between the government and Turkey's powerful military.

"If the prosecution continues as we have seen it, we can have an extremely dangerous situation," says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkish security issues.

"You now have extreme distrust between the government and the military. What we don't want is a situation where the military believes the government is out to get it."

The investigation into the coup plot, which started in June 2007 and is known as "Ergenekon," has already resulted in the arrest of some 100 people, among them retired four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists and academics. According to an indictment, the plotters were hoping to bring down the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) by sowing enough chaos, through terror attacks and high-level assassinations, that the military would be forced to intervene.

Weapons caches found

In recent days, following sketches found in the homes of some of the suspects, police have uncovered two weapons caches buried on the outskirts of Ankara. Among the weapons were hand grenades, plastic explosives, and ammunition.

For many Turks, the investigation and the arrests – particularly of high-level military personnel – offer a chance to expose and unravel some of the work of the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military, and the security establishment.

"I think this is a historical case. This is a good chance for the Turkish political system to put a stop to military interventions and to clean its ranks of these illegal affiliations between state authorities and gangsters and mafia types," says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

But the case, started in June 2007 after grenades were found in the Istanbul home of a retired military officer, is also creating new tensions between the AKP and the military, which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Turkey's secular tradition and which has forced out of power four governments in the past.

The arrest last week of three retired generals and nine active officers led to the armed forces chief Gen. Ilker Basbug to call Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a surprise meeting.

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