By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Twelve senior Turkish military officers were charged on Wednesday over an alleged plot to topple a government that secularist hardliners fear is pursuing a hidden Islamist agenda.
Turkeyâ€™s top military commanders, who have seen the armyâ€™s role as ultimate guardian of secularism eroded under European Union-backed reforms, held an emergency meeting late on Tuesday and warned in a statement of a â€œserious situation.â€
With tensions hitting investorsâ€™ confidence and feeding speculation that elections due next year could be brought forward, Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul will meet Turkeyâ€™s top military commander on Thursday, a government source said.
Turkish stocks closed down 3.4 percent and the lira weakened to a seven-month low against the dollar, while bond yields rose.
Adding to uncertainty, Turkeyâ€™s chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya said he was looking into statements made by deputies from the ruling AK Party, but had not reached the stage of opening a formal investigation against the party.
Yalcinkaya tried to have the party banned for anti-secular activities in 2008. Speculation that he could try again has prompted talk that the government could call a snap election.
The AK Party, first elected in 2002 in a landslide victory over older, established parties blighted by corruption and accusations of misrule, is also embroiled in a dispute with the judiciary — another pillar of the orthodox establishment.
The military has ousted four governments of various political hues since 1960, although the army says the days of coups are now over.
While the chances of another coup are seen as remote, anxiety is growing over what the generals might do next and what strains the situation might put on the armed forcesâ€™ leadership.
Turkeyâ€™s NATO allies, particularly the United States, want the overwhelmingly Muslim nation to mature as a democracy.
Its prospects of entering the EU depend partly on ending the special status that made the arrest of military personnel, still less a former force commander, by civilian authorities inconceivable until recently.
Tensions were triggered by an unprecedented police swoop on Monday that detained around 50 serving and retired officers.
A court late on Wednesday ordered five officers, four of them retired and including former Rear Admiral Feyyaz Ogutcu, to be sent to jail pending trial. Another two were released.
The most senior detainees, retired Air Force Commander Ibrahim Firtina and ex-navy chief Ozden Ornek, are being held at police headquarters in Istanbul and are expected to be brought to the court for questioning on Thursday.
The other seven officers charged in the early hours of Wednesday consisted of four admirals, two retired and two serving, a retired brigadier-general and two retired colonels.
Pending a formal indictment, the detainees are accused of belonging to a terrorist group and of attempting to overthrow the government by force.
Six officers were released from custody on Tuesday after questioning. It was unclear if they would face charges.
The army leadership has said previously that probes into a series of alleged coup plots is hurting morale in the ranks.
In a characteristically veiled and brief statement on its web site on Tuesday, the General Staff said its top commanders had met to â€œassess the serious situation that has arisen.â€
â€œWhat do you mean? Are you going to carry out a coup?â€ said a headline in Taraf, a low-circulation newspaper that has broken several stories of alleged coup plots.
The current investigation into the so-called â€œSledgehammerâ€ plan, allegedly drawn up in 2003, was triggered by a report in Taraf last month. The military has said the plan was just a scenario drawn up for an army seminar.
Retired military officers are among around 200 people indicted over separate plots by a far-right group known as Ergenekon. Critics say that trial is being used to target political opponents, an accusation the government rejects.
(Additional reporting by Pinar Aydinli, Zerin Elci and Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara, Alexandra Hudson and Thomas Grove in Istanbul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Ralph Boulton and David Stamp)