ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The chiefs of staff of Turkey's military stepped down Friday as tensions dramatically increased over the arrest of dozens of officers accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.
The resignation of so many top commanders for the first time ever in Turkey signals a deep rift with the government, which has been confident in confronting a military that once held sway over Turkish political life. The arrests of high-ranking military officers would once have been unimaginable.
The resignations of Turkey's top general, Isik Kosaner, along with the country's navy, army and air force commanders, came hours after a court charged 22 suspects, including several generals and officers, with carrying out an Internet campaign to undermine the government. The commanders asked to be retired, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Gen. Necdet Ozel, the commander of the gendarme forces — the highest-ranking commander who remained in office. Ozel was widely expected to become the next head of the military and Kosaner's resignation might speed up the process.
Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said "the state would continue to function," in the first reaction by the government.
"The information I received is that they have asked for their retirement," Yildirim said.
The commanders who stepped down decided not to attend a prescheduled reception hosted by the embassy of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in a possible move to avoid civilian leaders, NTV television said.
Kosaner had met with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul earlier Friday to discuss several key appointments during next week's high military council meeting.
Seventeen generals and admirals, who are in line for promotion, have been jailed along with nearly 200 officers on charges of plotting to overthrow the government in 2003 in a case called the "Sledgehammer."
More than 400 people — including academics, journalists, politicians and soldiers — also are on trial on separate charges of plotting to bring down the government. That case is based on a conspiracy by an alleged gang of secular nationalists called "Ergenekon."
The government hails coup plot trials as a break with impunity. But sweeping roundups of suspects and long confinements without a verdict raised concern about judicial flaws.
In the 2003 case, plotters at an army seminar allegedly discussed mosque bombings and other violent acts that would let the military intervene under the guise of restoring order. The indictment cites an 11-page coup plan.
The government denies the cases are politically motivated and says it is just trying to work to improve democracy.
Erdogan's ruling party, which won a third term in elections on June 12 in a landslide victory, has said its key goal is to replace a military-era constitution with a more democratic one.
The Turkish military has staged three coups and forced an Islamist prime minister to quit. Coup leaders drew on the support of Turks who saw them as saviors from chaos and corruption, but they were often ruthless.
In a 1960 takeover, the prime minister and key ministers were executed. In a 1980 coup, there were numerous cases of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing.
Outside politics, the military enjoys respect and vast economic resources, and is a rite of passage for almost all men who serve as conscripts. It contributes troops in a noncombat role to the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, and the funerals of soldiers who die in fighting with Kurdish rebels receive heavy media coverage.
The military, however, came under severe criticism after Kurdish guerrillas killed 13 soldiers in a single clash on July 14, prompting the government to order its own investigation and consider deploying special police forces to fight the rebels along with Turkish troops.
The military said the troops properly followed the orders and took all security measures, but still asked a court to find out whether there were any flaws.