ANKARA (AFP) — A Turkish army faction backed by tanks and fighter jets staged an attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday but the strongman returned to Istanbul defiantly claiming to have regained control.
Soldiers and tanks took to the streets late on Friday and multiple explosions rang out throughout the night in Ankara and Istanbul, the two biggest cities of the strategic NATO country of 80 million people.
Local TV said 42 people had been killed, according to a local prosecutor.
Erdogan predicted that the move would fail and crowds of supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came out onto the streets to try to block the putsch.
After hours of chaos unseen in decades, the president ended uncertainty over his whereabouts, flying into Istanbul airport in the early hours of the morning where he made a defiant speech and was greeted by hundreds of supporters.
Erdogan denounced the coup attempt as “treachery” but said he was carrying out his functions and would keep on working “to the end.”
“What is being perpetrated is a treason and a rebellion. They will pay a heavy price for this act of treason,” Erdogan said at Istanbul’s airport. “We will not leave our country to occupiers.”
With Turkish officials insisting the coup was faltering and Erdogan ordering the army to shoot down planes being used by the plotters, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said 120 of those involved had been arrested.
The sound of F-16 fighter jets flying over the capital Ankara signaled the start of the putsch late on Friday, with troops also moving to block the bridges across the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul.
As protesters took to the streets, an AFP photographer saw troops open fire on people gathered near one of the bridges, leading to numerous casualties.
State-run news agency Anadolu reported that the parliament in Ankara had been bombed and regular explosions could be heard from the AFP office situated near the complex.
World leaders called for calm, with US President Barack Obama and other Western countries urging support for the government which he said had been elected in democratic elections.
The night of violence brings new instability to the Middle East region, with Turkey a key powerbroker in the ongoing Syria conflict.
After the initial dramatic military movements, state broadcaster TRT said the troops behind the putsch had declared martial law and a curfew, in a statement signed by a group calling itself the “Council for Peace in the Homeland.”
“The power in the country has been seized in its entirety,” the statement said.
It said the coup had been launched “to ensure and restore constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms and let the supremacy of the law in the country prevail, to restore order which was disrupted.”
No named military officer claimed responsibility for the actions, though Erdogan later said he didn’t know the whereabouts of his army chief, General Hulusi Akar.
Turkey’s once-powerful military has long considered itself the guardian of the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
It has staged three coups since 1960 and forced out an Islamic government in 1997.
Erdogan’s critics have long accused him of undermining modern Turkey’s secular roots and of sliding into authoritarianism — but the president was believed to have won control of the military after purging elements who opposed him.
The Turkish strongman urged people to rally in his support, prompting hundreds of supporters to gather in Turkey’s three main cities of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, AFP correspondents said.
There was chaos in Istanbul as angry crowds took to the streets to boo the passing tanks, with smaller numbers welcoming the troops.
As a helicopter flew over the famed Taksim Square, scene of massive anti-Erdogan protests three years ago, the crowd began to boo, shaking their fists at the night sky.
Hundreds crowded around the monument marking the formation of the Turkish Republic almost 100 years ago. Others made a circle holding a giant Turkish flag, jumping up and down chanting: “Military get out!”
“The people are afraid of a military government,” a 38-year-old man who gave his name as Dogan told AFP. “Most of them have been in military service, they know what a military government would mean.”
But other Turks were welcoming news of the coup.
“Turks are on fire,” Fethi, a 27-year-old tour guide in Taksim Square, told AFP.
“We have hope now,” he added. “Turkey has been in a very polarized state for almost 15 years now… This is the manifestation of all that anger.”
Erdogan immediately pinned the blame on “the parallel state” and “Pennsylvania” — a reference to Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, his arch-enemy who he has always accused of seeking to overthrow him.
But Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) movement angrily denied the claim, saying “we condemn any military intervention in domestic politics of Turkey.”
Reports said that flights into Istanbul’s main international airport had been halted. The Bosphorus bridges were closed in both directions and completely empty of traffic.
The coup plotters sought to reassure the international community, saying in their statement: “All our international agreements and commitments retain their validity.”
It added: “We hope our good relations will continue with all countries in the world.”
But there was a flood of concerned reactions from around the globe, with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini calling for “restraint and respect for democratic institutions”.
Obama has been briefed, while the Kremlin said it was “deeply concerned” by the developments.
“Everything must be done to protect human lives,” said a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A Greek government source said Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had been “briefed by the head of secret services” about the developments. Tsipras then expressed “support for the democratically elected” Turkish government, a government source said early Saturday.
Tsipras’ diplomatic advisor sent the “message of support for democracy in Turkey” to his counterpart in neighboring Turkey, the source said.