ISTANBUL (AP) — Chanting, dancing and waving flags, tens of thousands of Turks marched through the streets into the wee hours Sunday in half a dozen cities to defend democracy and support the country’s long-time leader after a failed military coup shocked the nation.
It was an emotional display by Turks, who rallied in headscarves and long dresses, T-shirts and work boots, some walking hand-in-hand with their children. Rather than toppling Turkey’s strongman president, the attempted coup that left some 265 dead and 1,440 wounded appears to have bolstered Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity and grip on power.
“Just a small group from Turkish armed forces stood up against our government … but we, the Turkish nation, stand together and repulse it back,” Gozde Kurt, a 16-year-old student at the rally in Istanbul, said Sunday morning.
Security forces on Sunday rounded up 52 more military officers for alleged coup links and issued detention orders for 53 more judges and prosecutors, continuing the purge of judges seen as government opponents. Officials say about 3,000 soldiers, including officers, are already in detention. Almost a similar number of judges and prosecutors have been dismissed.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the perpetrators of Friday’s failed coup “will receive every punishment they deserve,” and the government said it would take steps toward extraditing a U.S.-based cleric it accused of fomenting the uprising.
The Yeni Safak newspaper used the headline “Traitors of the country,” while the Hurriyet newspaper declared “Democracy’s victory.”
Still, the government crackdowns raised concerns over the future of democracy in Turkey, which has long prided itself on its democratic and secular traditions despite being in a tumultuous region swept by conflict and extremism.
Erdogan’s survival has turned him into a “sort of a mythical figure” and could further erode democracy in Turkey, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at The Washington Institute.
“It will allow him (Erdogan) to crack down on liberty and freedom of association, assembly, expression and media in ways that we haven’t seen before and find strong public support within the country,” he said.
The coup attempt began late Friday with tanks rolling into the streets of the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul as Erdogan was enjoying a seaside vacation. Explosions and gunfire erupted throughout the night. It quickly became clear, however, that the military was not united in the effort to overthrow the government. In a dramatic iPhone interview broadcast on TV, Erdogan urged his supporters into the streets to confront the troops and tanks, and forces loyal to the government began reasserting control.
The unrest claimed at least 265 lives, according to a tally compiled from official statements. Yildirim said 161 people were killed and 1,440 wounded in the process of putting down the coup attempt, while Gen. Umit Dundar said at least 104 “coup plotters” had died.
Before the weekend’s chaos, Turkey — a NATO member and key Western ally in the fight against the Islamic State group — had been wracked by political turmoil that critics blamed on Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. He has shaken up the government, cracked down on dissidents, restricted the news media and renewed fighting with Kurdish rebels.
But Saturday afternoon, when tensions eased, an atmosphere of celebration broke around as Turks answered official calls to rally to protect Turkish democracy. In Istanbul, crowds gathered at Taksim Square, where a man stood on an iconic monument with a Turkish flag draped on his chest.
Government supporters marched through Ankara, as cars honked in apparent approval. Some gathered outside parliament and amid the burnt cars outside the presidential palace. One man took a selfie with a Turkish police officer standing atop an abandoned tank.
“We are here for democracy, so the country lasts,” retired soldier Nusret Tuzak said in Ankara.
Flights resumed late Saturday into Istanbul’s Anaturk Airport after being halted for nearly 24 hours and scores of government supporters gathered to make sure the airport was not a coup target again. The usually buzzing airport was eerily quiet.
In an unusual show of unity, Turkey’s four main political parties released a joint declaration during an extraordinary parliamentary meeting Saturday, denouncing the coup attempt and claiming that any moves against the people or parliament will be met “with the iron will of the Turkish Grand National Assembly.”
Government forces arrested 2,839 accused coup supporters, Yildirim said. Dundar said the plotters were mainly officers from the Air Force, the military police and armored units. Anadolu said the government dismissed 2,745 judges across Turkey.
Officials claimed the judges and the coup plotters were loyal to moderate cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has often accused of attempting to overthrow the government. Gulen, a staunch democracy advocate who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, is a former Erdogan ally turned bitter foe who has been put on trial in absentia in Turkey.
In a televised speech, Erdogan called on the United States to extradite Gulen.
At a news conference Saturday in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, Gulen strongly denied any role in or knowledge of the coup.
“Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force,” he said. “As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would entertain an extradition request for Gulen, but Turkey would have to present “legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny.”
Turkey’s NATO allies lined up to condemn the coup attempt. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg urged all sides to support Turkey’s democratically elected government.
Turkey’s military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, a mentor of Erdogan, out of power in 1997.