updated 4/18/2009 3:39:15 PM ET 2009-04-18T19:39:15

Thousands of people marched to the mausoleum of secular Turkey's founder on Saturday to protest the arrests of university professors and other secularists accused of involvement in an alleged plot to topple the Islamic-rooted government.

More than 5,000 people, including students and university teachers in academic robes, waved Turkish flags, carried posters of Turkey's late leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and chanted: "Turkey is secular and will remain secular!"

Authorities have charged more than 200 people including politicians, journalists, military and police officers as part of the investigation into the alleged secularist conspiracy to topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The case is part of a power struggle in Turkey between the Erdogan's elected government run by pious Muslims and secular elites backed by the military. The secularists ran the country after Ataturk, a war hero, founded the state in 1923 out of chaos that followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Prosecutors say the suspects are part of a nationalist gang, called Ergenekon, that aimed to foment chaos and force a military takeover. Ergenekon is the name of a legendary ancestral home of Turks.

Charges of witch hunts
The opposition says the evidence against most of those charged is feeble and accuses the government of a witch hunt against secularists, many of whom fear the government is trying to impose Islam on society. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denies the charge and says his government upholds Turkey's secular principles.

Saturday's protest was called after authorities this week raided the homes and offices of dozens of people, including university professors and directors of secular non-governmental organizations that sponsor students from poor families.

Eight people, including Mehmet Haberal — the rector and owner of Ankara's Baskent University — were charged. Haberal, 65, who also owns a pro-secular television station, was later hospitalized with a heart problem.

Haberal had organized meetings with secularists opposed to the government, reportedly with the aim of forming a new political movement or party.

The investigation into Ergenekon was launched in 2007 when police found a cache of weapons in the home of a retired military officer.

The Ergenekon gang is suspected in attacks on a newspaper and a courthouse, and plots to kill the prime minister and author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel laureate.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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