Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the target of a possible assassination attempt during the failed military coup that unfolded over Friday night and Saturday, and in which over 290 people were killed.
According to the Middle East Eye citing al-Jazeera Arabic and the Turkish daily Hurriyet on Sunday, a senior military figure tipped off Erdogan that pro-coup forces were moving in on his position while he was away on vacation in the coastal resort town of Marmaris.
Turkish First Army Commander Umit Dundar, according to the reports, called Erdogan an hour before the push to oust him began late Friday night to warn him of the plans to overthrow his rule and of an attempt to “kill or capture” him.
“You are our legitimate president,” Dundar told Erdogan, according to Hurriyet. “I am at your side, there is a huge coup and the situation is out of control in Ankara. Come to Istanbul and I will secure your access to the roads and accommodations there.”
Pro-coup military troops had taken control of key areas in Istanbul including the Bosphorus Bridge.
Hurriyet reported that Turkish special forces backed by helicopters stormed the hotel where Erdogan was staying in Marmaris, but the president was already on his way to Istanbul.
Witnesses reported hearing explosions and overhead helicopter noise at the hotel on Friday night.
According to Middle East Eye, Al-Jazeera’s Istanbul bureau chief Abdul Azim Mohammed, said three helicopters from the military’s special forces arrived at the hotel carrying some 40 soldiers with the intention of killing or capturing the president.
The presidential guard clashed with the forces, some of whom then fled, according to the report.
A Reuters report Saturday said that Erdogan’s plane was also “harassed” en route from Marmaris to Istanbul to quash the coup but that the two pro-coup pilots who had the plane in their sights did not fire.
“At least two F-16s harassed Erdogan’s plane while it was in the air and en route to Istanbul. They locked their radars on his plane and on two other F-16s protecting him,” a former Turkish military officer told Reuters.
According to the Daily Sabah, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was also the target of an assassination or capture attempt but managed to escape.
As the coup unfolded, Erdogan used his cell phone to appear on CNN Turk and successfully urged supporters to take to the streets to stop the attempt. A night of violence ensued in which at least 290 people were killed, over 1,000 wounded and thousands more were arrested.
Al-Jazeera also broadcast on its Arabic news channel screenshots from what it said were a series of WhatsApp messages that revealed the inner workings of the coup plotters and the key members, including military officers, judges, prosecutors and governors.
On Sunday, Turkish authorities pressed on with the ruthless crackdown Sagainst suspects in the failed coup, as Erdogan vowed to stamp out the “virus” of the putschists.
Erdogan also said Turkey could consider reinstating the death penalty following the attempted coup, despite concerns in the international community.
World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have strongly condemned Friday’s attempted takeover by an army faction, but there is also alarm over the retaliatory purges, especially after pictures emerged showing the rough treatment of some suspects.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said around 6,000 people had been detained in “clean-up operations” and warned that the number would rise.
They include senior army commanders, top judges, prosecutors and a military aide to Erdogan.
A resurgent Erdogan raised the prospect of bringing back capital punishment, which was abolished in 2004, as the country sought to improve its chances of joining the EU.
“In democracies, decisions are made based on what the people say. I think our government will speak with the opposition and come to a decision,” he said, reacting to crowds in Istanbul calling for the death penalty.
“We cannot delay this anymore because in this country, those who launch a coup will have to pay the price for it,” he told supporters.
The number of people killed in the failed coup attempt climbed to more than 290, the foreign ministry said on Sunday.
“More than 100 putschists” were killed and at least “190 of our citizens”, the ministry said in a statement on Sunday. The government had earlier put the death toll from Friday night’s coup attempt at 265.
Clashes erupted at an air base in the central city of Konya between security forces and putschists trying to evade arrest, while at Istanbul’s second airport Sabiha Gokcen, police fired warning shots at rebel troops who later surrendered, a Turkish official told AFP.
Turkish authorities have made clear they will show no mercy in the wake of the coup, which sparked fears of chaos in the strategic NATO country of 80 million people.
It was the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s rule in his 13 years as prime minister and president.
The group behind the putsch, which called itself the Council for Peace in the Homeland, said it was necessary to stop the increasingly authoritarian president from undermining Turkish democracy.
Critics at home and abroad had voiced mounting concern over the state of democracy and freedom of speech under Erdogan.
But the 62-year-old leader successfully mobilized supporters into the streets to face down the plotters.