ISTANBUL — A faction in the Turkish military Friday night declared it had staged a coup and seized “full control” over this country of nearly 80 million.
But hours later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned to Istanbul in defiance of the coup plotters, as forces loyal to him battled to regain control of the instruments of state power.
“They will pay for what they did,” Erdoğan said at the Istanbul airport. “This attempted uprising will get its answer from the law and they will be given an answer in the judicial system. They should know that in this country the law will be maintained.”
Early Friday night, soldiers suddenly seized two key bridges in Istanbul and jets took to the skies of the capital city of Ankara. Soon after, military forces seized control of the state-owned television network and forced an anchor to read a script denouncing Erdoğan as a traitor.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan urged the public to take to the streets and defeat an attempt by “a minority” of the Turkish military to take power. He was unable to speak on the state television, which was under control of the military, and instead had to communicate over FaceTime to CNN Turk, an opposition television channel.
“They will pay the price, the highest cost at the end,” Erdoğan said.
The Pentagon thinks the coup was attempted by a fairly small faction of the army, and was amateurishly executed, a senior U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. They expect it will be suppressed fairly quickly, but concede there’s still a lot that’s unknown about the mutineers. The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak about the incident publicly.
Already, the state-run television news agency had been retaken by forces loyal to Erdoğan.
The military claimed it was taking power from the democratically elected president because he has grown increasingly authoritarian over the past 13 years in power and to stop a sustained terrorist threat from ISIS across the border in Syria. In June, an attack by an unknown terrorist group struck Istanbul’s international airport, killing 41.
In what it called “public statement number one,” the organizers of the coup declared that the aim of the uprising was to restore democracy in Turkey.
“The Turkish military forces, in order to protect the constitutional structure of democracy, human rights and in order to guarantee democracy and freedom in the country, to make the rule of law once again the leading force and to restore the stability that has been lost, has taken all control over the nation.
“All our international relations, and all our obligations will be upheld. We guarantee good relations with to all countries in the world.”
A Turkish state television presenter said that the military has declared martial law and imposed a curfew. The struggle turned violent as the state-run outlet reported military helicopters firing upon a TURKSAT satellite station and the Ankara Police headquarters. There were also reports of tanks firing on civilian protesters in Istanbul.
As the attempted coup unfolded, Turkey blocked social-media networks Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
Amid reports that the chief of staff of the Turkish military is being held at gunpoint by the coup organizers in Ankara, gunfire had been heard in what some government officials described as fighting between the Turkish military and the police in central Istanbul’s Taskim Square. Earlier, military forces began firing on protesters in Taskim after police had fled.
Meanwhile, in Anakara, the headquarters of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization was on fire after being fired upon by helicopter gunships.
Erdoğan blamed the uprising on Fethullah Gulen, a retired Islamic cleric and former political ally, who once had a sizable following in the Turkish police, judiciary, and military. Erdoğan, who has purged the police and judiciary of reputed Gulen sympathizers over the past two years, had been due to hold a meeting of the body overseeing the military, the High Military Council, and there were reports he was planning oust anyone still linked with Gulen.
Gulen now lives in exile in Pennsylvania, and Erdoğan has tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to obtain his extradition to face allegations of supporting terrorism.
Ceren Kenar, an Istanbul-based journalist close to the Erdoğan government, told The Daily Beast: “We don’t have much clue regarding the split within the army and the level of support to the junta. The government point outs to the Gulenists. No information yet whether the Gulenists are alone in this or collaborating with other groups.”
Yet Erdoğan expressed certainty about who was behind the coup against him.
“Turkey won’t be frightened by this kind of uprising and Turkey cannot be governed from Pennsylvania,” he said.
In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, Zeynep Jane Kandur, a member of Erdoğan’s AKP party, also insisted the Gulenists were responsbile for the coup. Then she backtracked. “I don’t know it,” she said. “I would assume it. It’s pretty clear who they are.”
She went on to call the coup a “last gasp” from a military faction long accustomed to taking down democratically-elected governments.
“It’s not the old military. The old military doesn’t have control of the government any more,” Kandur said. “From now on the military will protect the people, not try to control the people.”
The first confirmation that a coup was under way came from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. “It is correct that there is an attempt,” he said. But he added that the operation could not succeed.
—with additional reporting from Kimberly Dozier, Noah Shachtman, Kelly Weill, Nancy A. Youssef, and Michael Weiss