Standing in the blood of vengeance… against a coup beaten by FaceTime
Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th July, 2016)
It was an astonishing call to arms, made from an iPhone held in the trembling hand of a newsreader, and broadcast live to a nation in the grip of a terrifying coup.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, watching his country slip into the hands of military plotters, begged: ‘I urge the Turkish people to convene at public squares and airports. I never believed in a power higher than the power of the people.’
To the watching world, the bizarre exhortation appeared to be the swansong of a ruler about to fall. But, armed with no more than their own defiance, his people answered the call in their thousands and poured on to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul to face tanks, bullets and death.
In the vicious fighting that followed, with the people backed by police and loyal troops against the rebels, more than 265 were killed, many of them civilians. But as the first rays of dawn appeared over Istanbul, people power had triumphed over brute force.
But the elation was overshadowed by the spectre of a newly emboldened Erdogan regime ‘cleansing’ opponents in the military and heavy hints from the prime minister that the plotters could face execution.
As I walked among the bullet-riddled military vehicles littering the city, their windows shattered and sides flecked with fresh bullet holes, sticky puddles of crimson blood stained the road. One middle-aged man, draped in his national flag, rushed up to show me a shard of bloody shrapnel. A police visor lay on the ground beside us, a remnant of the battle for this mighty bridge over the Bosphorus Straight.
This famous Istanbul landmark, linking Europe with Asia, was where Turkey’s coup began with soldiers blocking the road at about 9.30pm on Friday. And it effectively ended there some eight hours later when about 50 soldiers were forced into humiliating surrender with hands held aloft in front of television cameras.
The dramatic insurgency by an army faction in this fragile country of huge strategic importance left 265 dead, 1,400 injured and the world shaken. Meanwhile:
- Fighting continued in the capital Ankara as groups of rebels staged a desperate last stand;
- More than 2,800 alleged plotters were rounded up;
- World leaders gave the Erdogan regime their support;
- A party of British schoolchildren were caught up in the drama at Istanbul airport;
- Eight rebel officers hijacked a helicopter gunship and flew to Greece seeking asylum;
Turkey closed its air space to military aircraft, preventing US Air Force jets flying missions against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
It bore all the hallmarks of a classic military coup: tanks at airports and bridges, troops taking over broadcasting stations and launched when the country’s divisive President was away on a seaside holiday.
Yet despite the use of aircraft and attack helicopters, which strafed the parliament and HQ of Turkish intelligence in Ankara, the putsch was defeated partly by ordinary citizens defying heavily armed troops.
There were grisly reports that one soldier may have been beheaded by a mob on the bridge. Others were beaten with belts by angry crowds after being dragged cowering from military vehicles.
Prime Minister Benali Yildirim described the night as a ‘dark stain for Turkish democracy’ and said the perpetrators ‘will receive every punishment they deserve’. The coup started with a military statement saying troops had seized control ‘to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms’.
Turkey’s armed forces see themselves as protectors of the modern secular state, placing them in conflict with Erdogan’s Islamic-influenced AKP party. They have staged four previous coups since 1960.
Fighter jets soon began buzzing big cities, gunfire erupted outside military headquarters, the national assembly was attacked and soldiers backed by tanks blocked entry to Istanbul’s two airports.
At one, a group of stranded British schoolchildren spent the night cowering at the sound of gunfire echoing in the streets outside after their flight was cancelled. Yet they were defeated by the determined actions of the President, backed by crowds of fervent supporters waving Turkish flags in the face of military machinery.
By early yesterday morning, I saw police at Sabiha Gokcen airport disarming three tanks and five armoured personnel carriers blocking the entrance. They casually removed lethal armour-piercing shells, dumping them alongside boxes of bullets in a van.
In Uskudar, a densely-populated part of the city on the Anatolian shore, a tank sat beside a smashed saloon car used to stop it trundling down the street. One man told me how a crowd then rushed the vehicle, despite its weaponry.
In the main shopping street I found another three tanks and one armoured vehicle. Once the soldiers had surrendered, they were served tea but would not leave their vehicles since they said they were ‘under orders’.
By mid-morning, as it was clear the putsch was failing despite bursts of continuing gunfire, families were out taking selfies with the seized tanks; several flew the country’s red flag with white crescent from their turrets.
The successful overthrow of Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey since 2003, would have marked one of the biggest shifts in the Middle East in years, transforming a major Western ally and key player in the Syrian crisis.
Officers from the Air Force, the military police and the armoured units were mainly involved in the attempt, said the government. The uprising seems not to have been backed by many of the most senior military figures.
Turkey’s main opposition parties condemned the attempted overthrow. Many MPs took shelter inside the parliament building in Ankara, which came under heavy fire. The Speaker said an explosive hit one corner of an office in the complex, injuring several police officers.
Among those trapped there was Ali Sahin, the country’s deputy Europe minister, who told The Mail on Sunday they were shelled repeatedly. ‘There was an attempted coup,’ he said. ‘But the people pushed them back.’
He shared pictures from his phone of mangled metal, shattered glass and piles of rubble inside the national assembly building. Erdogan, who was on holiday in Marmaris, took to social media to defend his rule – which was ironic, given his intense dislike of such technology when used by his enemies.
The President appealed for support via Facetime, appearing on the iPhone of a CNN Turk reporter who held it up to a studio camera so viewers could see him.
Then he flew into Istanbul before dawn on Saturday, insisting his government remained in control despite attempts to attack him in Marmaris. ‘They bombed places I had departed right after I was gone,’ he said. After he arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, Erdogan declared: ‘They have pointed the people’s guns against the people.’
Then he added ominously: ‘What is being perpetrated is a treason and a rebellion. They will pay a heavy price.’
As news emerged that the two suspension bridges over the Bosphorus were closed and pictures began circulating on social media of tanks on streets and soldiers confronting police, panic spread. Diners abandoned pavement cafes and bars. There were queues to withdraw large sums of cash at banks.
After the President’s invocation, groups began marching towards Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Many troops looked young and confused, onlookers told the MoS. Later about 30 pro-coup soldiers gave up their weapons when surrounded by armed police in the square.
Mosques blared out the call to prayer and urged people on to the streets to join the resistance against the coup attempt. By dawn the noise of gunfire and explosions in the two key cities began dying down.
As the soldiers surrendered on one of the two bridges over the Bosphorus, there were scenes of celebration from those who had faced them down through the night.
Television footage showed troops being forced to kneel, hands clamped to heads. A Turkish military commander said fighter jets had shot down a helicopter used by the coup plotters over Ankara.
I saw two army bases blockaded by lorries and other large vehicles. At the Etimesgut armoured units training command, on the outskirts of Ankara, it was reported that officers arrested some of their fellow soldiers participating in the plot.
Turkey’s military ousted four civilian governments between 1960 and 1997. Many people I spoke with in Istanbul were furious that some of the armed forces had attempted to revive this unwanted tradition.
Critics fear the autocratic Erdogan will now seek to present himself as a champion of democratic values after fighting off a challenge to a government that won 49 per cent of the vote in November. There are fears he will use the cover of eliminating the plotters to tighten his grip on power. Yesterday, it emerged 2,745 judges had been dismissed from their posts, the latest purges in the legal system.
Erdogan, who told citizens to ‘keep on owning the streets’ yesterday amid fears of further unrest, blamed the coup on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in the US. The pro-Gulen Alliance for Shared Values said it condemned military intervention in domestic politics.
The bloodshed could destabilise a Nato member sitting between the EU and Syria. But for now, there is just relief on the streets of Istanbul that further bloodshed and strife has been avoided in this divided and troubled nation.