By Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay
ANKARA (Reuters) – Two Turkish military attaches in Greece fled to Italy, others were caught overseas and some diplomats were on the run after being recalled as part of an inquiry into last month’s failed military coup, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Thursday.
Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest armed forces, has dismissed or detained thousands of soldiers, including nearly half its generals, since the July 15 coup attempt, in which rogue troops commandeered tanks and warplanes in an attempt to seize power.
Western allies worry that President Tayyip Erdogan is using the putsch and the purge that has followed to tighten his grip on power. But many Turks are angered by what they see as a lack of Western sympathy over a violent coup in which 240 people died.
“Democracy rallies”, largely attended by Erdogan supporters but also some parts of the opposition, have been held night after night since the putsch. Pollster Metropoll said on Thursday its monthly survey showed a surge in approval for Erdogan to 68 percent in July from 47 percent a month earlier.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told private broadcaster NTV that two military attaches in Greece – a naval and an army officer – had fled by car and ferry to Italy, but that Turkish officials would seek their return.
Cavusoglu said a military attache based in Kuwait had also tried to escape through Saudi Arabia, but had been sent back, as well as two generals based in Afghanistan who had been caught in Dubai by UAE authorities and returned to Turkey.
The hunt for fugitive Turkish officers and officials overseas expands the crackdown at home, where tens of thousands of troops, police and bureaucrats have been detained, dismissed or investigated for alleged links to the coup, which authorities blame on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen denies any involvement and has condemned the coup bid. But he says Erdogan is using the purges to shore up his own power in Turkey.
Turkey has detained a total of 35,022 people in relation to the failed coup, a senior official said. Just over half of those detained, or 17,740 people, have been formally arrested while a third have been released. Another 5,685 are still in custody, the official said.
“TIME HAS RUN OUT”
“There are those who have escaped. There have been escapees among our diplomats as well,” Cavusoglu told NTV in an interview. “As of yesterday, time has run out for those initially called back. We will carry out the legal operations for those who have not returned.”
Interior Minister Efkan Ala was quoted on Thursday as saying almost 76,100 civil servants have now been suspended.
The Greek foreign ministry said the two attaches fled before Ankara asked them to return to Turkey, and before officials canceled their diplomatic passports.
U.S. officials told Reuters this week that a Turkish military officer on a U.S.-based assignment for NATO is also seeking asylum in the United States after being recalled by the government.
A total of 160 members of the military wanted in connection with the failed coup are still at large, including nine generals, officials have said.
One official said the foreign ministry sent instructions to Turkish diplomatic missions around the world where those suspected of links to the plotters were thought to be working, ordering them back to Ankara as part of the investigations.
Five employees of Turkey’s embassy in the Netherlands were recalled on suspicion of involvement with the Gulen movement, the Turkish charge d’affaires told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper this week.
“It wasn’t the cook or the servants,” Kurtulus Aykan, acting head of Turkey’s mission to the Netherlands, was quoted as saying. “These were high-ranking staff members. Talented people, with whom I had an excellent working relationship. I suspected nothing. That’s the talent of this movement. They infiltrate silently.”
Cavusoglu has previously said around 300 members of the foreign ministry have been suspended since the coup plot, including two ambassadors. He said on Thursday two officials in Bangladesh fled to New York, and another official had fled to Japan through Moscow.
“We will return these traitors to Turkey,” Cavusoglu said.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of staging the attempted putsch, harnessing his extensive network of schools, charities and businesses built up in Turkey and abroad over decades to create a “parallel structure”.
The abortive coup and subsequent purge of the military have raised concern about the stability of Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State and which is battling an insurgency at home by Kurdish militants.
Turkey has been angered by the Western response, viewing Europe as more concerned about the rights of the plotters than the events themselves and the United States as reluctant to extradite Gulen.
That has chilled relations with Washington and the European Union, bringing repeated Turkish warnings about an EU deal to stem the flow of migrants. Erdogan has also repaired ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a detente Western officials worry may be used to pressure the West.
“Sooner or later the United States of America will make a choice. Either Turkey or FETO,” Erdogan told a rally late on Wednesday, using an abbreviation standing for the “Gulenist Terror Group” which is how Ankara refers to Gulen’s movement.
Turkey has also canceled the work permits of 27,424 people in the education sector as part of its investigations, Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz said on Thursday.
Ankara prosecutors also ordered on Thursday the detention of 648 judges and prosecutors suspended a day earlier, Hurriyet newspaper and broadcasters said. They are among 3,500 judges and prosecutors – a quarter of the national total – suspended in the coup inquiry, according to state-run Anadolu Agency.
(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Athens, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Nick Tattersall and David Stamp)