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Turkish officers charged over alleged coup plot

By Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, CNN
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Police arrest Turkey's generals
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Seven of 49 suspects formally arrested and charged over alleged coup plot
  • "Sledgehammer" plot was allegedly discussed by military commanders in 2003
  • Press reports said plan included placing bombs in mosques to destabilize government
  • Turkey's top general angrily denied the report last month
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Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Authorities in Turkey formally charged and imprisoned seven senior military officers Wednesday who are among 49 military leaders accused of trying to overthrow the government.

The charges come after an unusual meeting of all active duty generals and admirals Tuesday -- dubbed the "Four Star Summit" by one Turkish newspaper.

The Turkish military issued a terse statement after the meeting saying the generals and admirals evaluated "the serious situation that occurred within the framework of an investigation executed by the Istanbul chief prosecutor's office."

At 2 a.m. Wednesday, seven of the 49 suspects were formally charged and imprisoned, the semi-official Anatolian Agency reported. They included two active duty admirals, as well as two retired admirals, a former general and a retired colonel.

The suspects have been linked to "Sledgehammer," a plan which was allegedly discussed by military commanders at a seminar in 2003. According to a January report in Turkey's Taraf newspaper, the plan called for bombs to be placed in mosques in an effort to destabilize the elected, Islamist-inspired government.

Turkey's top general angrily denied these reports in a fist-pounding performance last month.

"How on earth could the Turkish Armed Forces plan to bomb mosques?" asked Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug on January 25. "The Turkish Armed Forces has limits to its patience. I denounce these claims. ...We order our soldiers to attack [enemies] exclaiming, 'Allah, Allah!' ...Such claims are unjust."

The military has a long history of dominating Turkish politics.

The generals overthrew at least four civilian governments over the course of the last half century. But the armed forces have seen their influence gradually eclipsed since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party swept to power after winning parliamentary elections in 2002.

Since then, the generals, as well as other elements of Turkey's traditional secular establishment, have periodically clashed with Erdogan, whose party has its roots in political Islam. But the prime minister has repeatedly outflanked the secularists, by continuing to win big in popular elections.

Political analysts say today Erdogan's party enjoys the upper hand. But they warn the power struggle between the elected government and the staunchly secular military is still far from over.

"This is clearly a rather traumatic time. It's clear the armed forces are in a state of shock," said author and Turkey analyst Hugh Pope, of the International Crisis Group.

"It seems now that the civilian government is ahead and they enjoy popular support. But there are limits to where the civilian government can push this story, and they need to take great care not to provoke anybody."

Senior U.S. military officials tell CNN they are monitoring the arrests in Turkey, calling them "not insignificant." They voiced skepticism about the seriousness of the alleged "Sledgehammer" plot, however, and argued it was up to Gen. Basbug, as top Turkish military commander, to avoid a bigger crisis.

For decades, the Pentagon has enjoyed close military ties with Turkey, a NATO ally. Washington continues to rely on an airbase in Turkey to refueling aircraft en route to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Turkey's stock market dropped 3.42 percent on Wednesday. Financial analysts say the market reflected concerns over political tensions.

Meanwhile, the chairman of an influential Turkish business association made a public appeal for calm, after attending a meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

"We need consensus and moderation," said Umit Boyner, head of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessman's Association.

"Turkey should emerge from this tense atmosphere and go back to its real agenda: democratization, and creating growth and employment."

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report