By Humeyra Pamuk
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is seeking the extradition of 32 diplomats who went on the run after they were recalled by Ankara as part of investigations into last month’s failed coup attempt, the foreign minister said on Friday.
Turkish authorities have arrested, detained or dismissed tens of thousands of people, including military personnel, civil servants, judges and teachers, following the July 15 coup bid, which President Tayyip Erdogan has blamed on a network led by a U.S.-based cleric.
The purge is worrying Western allies concerned about stability in the NATO member and partner in the fight against Islamic State. But Turkish officials are angered over a perceived lack of sympathy by Western officials who they say are more worried about the crackdown than the coup itself.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking at a news conference in Ankara with his Iranian counterpart, said a total of 208 Turkish diplomats had been recalled as part of the coup investigation, but 32 of them had fled to other countries.
“We have been in contact with the countries where they fled and are working on their extradition,” he said.
Three military attaches have also gone on the run, including two who fled from Greece to Italy, and another who fled Bosnia, the minister said, without specifying where the third might have gone.
Two Turkish generals based in Afghanistan who traveled to Dubai and another attache who was working in Saudi Arabia have all already been sent back to Turkey.
The extradition moves expand a domestic purge that authorities say targets a “parallel state” set up by followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating the coup plot.
Gulen, who has lived in the United States for years, denies any part in the putsch.
“If a tenth of accusations against me are established, I pledge to return to Turkey and serve the heaviest sentence,” Gulen said in an opinion piece in French daily Le Monde on Friday.
Turkish authorities have issued an arrest warrant for one of its most celebrated soccer players, former international striker Hakan Sukur, ordering the seizure of his assets as part of the investigation into the failed coup.
Prosecutors accused Sukur of “being a member of an armed terror group”, a reference to Gulen’s organization.
Erdogan demands the cleric be extradited to Turkey, saying Washington must chose between Turkey and Gulen, in a case that has strained Ankara’s relations with Washington.
American officials have said they need to see clear evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the coup plot.
Cavusoglu said Turkey had sent documents to the United States and had received positive signals about the case, without giving any details. He said a U.S. Department of Justice team would visit Turkey later this month.
“Everything is out in the open. We have an extradition agreement,” he said. “The whole world knows who is behind the coup attempt. Our expectation is for the U.S. to extradite Gulen as soon as possible.”
Erdogan says the armed forces have been infiltrated in recent years by Gulen’s supporters.
The president has vowed to restructure the military after the coup attempt, during which soldiers used jets, military helicopters and tanks to attack government institutions including parliament and the intelligence agency.
Despite the purge of the military, including nearly half of the country’s generals, Defense Minister Fikri Isik said on Friday that Turkey’s role in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State would continue without interruption.
Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest military, allows the United States to use the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to launch attacks against Islamic State militants.
Isik said a decree would soon be ready to order the recruitment of new air force pilots following the purge.
“Our priority in this decree is the 265 pilots who have been dismissed. We have enough pilots in the Turkish Air Force in the case of an emergency, but we are below the necessary number,” Isik said of the decree.
The ruling AK Party founded by Erdogan has long had testy relations with the military, which for decades saw itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular order and the legacy of the nation’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The military has ousted four governments in the past 60 years.
Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said on Friday hundreds of private firms were linked to the Gulen network.
“We believe that at the core there are fewer than 1,000 companies financing terror,” Simsek said in a speech in Istanbul, referring to Gulen’s network of supporters.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by David Dolan and Pravin Char)