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Turkey Coup Attempt: Commander of U.S.-Linked Base Among 6,000 Arrested

Turkey widened a crackdown on suspected supporters of a failed military coup on Sunday, bringing the number of people rounded up to 6,000.
Image: Military Occupy Strategic Locations In Turkey
A man uses his belt to hit Turkish soldiers involved in the coup attempt.Gokhan Tan / Getty Images

ISTANBUL — Turkey widened a crackdown on suspected supporters of a failed military coup on Sunday, bringing the number of people rounded up to 6,000 — including the commander of an airbase from which the U.S. launches airstrikes on ISIS fighters.

Amid the arrests, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Turkish television that life in the country was back to normal, announcing the central bank, capital markets board, banking system and stock exchange were all functional.

An official told Reuters that "a few important soldiers on the run and being sought" would likely be captured "shortly," in addition to the 6,000 people already detained.

An official who did not wish to be named told NBC News that among those arrested was General Bekir Ercan Van, commander of the Incirlik air base from which U.S. aircraft launch airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. Ten other soldiers at the base were also detained, he said.

Operations at the base were briefly halted following the coup attempt, but resumed Sunday afternoon local time, according to the Pentagon.

"After close coordination with our Turkish allies, they have reopened their airspace to military aircraft. As a result, counter-ISIL coalition air operations at all air bases in Turkey have resumed,” a defense department spokesman said in a statement.

Authorities have rounded up nearly 3,000 suspected military plotters, ranging from top commanders to foot soldiers, and the same number of judges and prosecutors after forces loyal to President Tayyip Erdogan crushed the attempted coup on Saturday.

The crackdown appeared to intensify a longstanding push by Erdogan to root out the influence of followers of U.S.-based Fethullah Gulen — a cleric who was at one point an ally of Erdogan's government.

Erdogan accuses followers of Gulen of trying to create a "parallel structure" within the courts, police, armed forces and media with an aim to topple the state.

The cleric denies the charge and says he played no role in the attempted coup, denouncing it as an affront to democracy.

Gulen said Saturday the attempted overthrow could have possibly been staged to justify a crackdown by Erdogan.

"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," Gulen said in a statement.

"Through military interventions, democracy cannot be achieved. Through military interventions, republican government cannot be strengthened. And through military intervention, Turkey's integration with the world cannot be strengthened or achieved," Gulen later told reporters.

Erdogan called on the United States to extradite Gulen. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would help in the investigation into who was responsible for the attempted coup and consider an extradition request, but only if there was solid evidence against Gulen.

Kerry also warned that suggestions of a U.S. role in the failed coup were "utterly false" and harmful to relations after Turkey's labor minister suggested there had been U.S. involvement in the plot.

Overnight, supporters of Erdogan rallied in public squares, at Istanbul airport and outside his palace in a show of defiance after the coup attempt killed scores.

With expectations growing of heavy measures against dissent, European politicians warned Erdogan that the coup attempt did not give him liberty to disregard the rule of law, and that he risked isolating himself internationally as he strengthens his position at home.

But Erdogan promised a purge of the armed forces even before the coup attempt was over. "They will pay a heavy price for this," he said. "This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army."

A successful overthrow of Erdogan, who has ruled the country since 2003, would have marked another seismic shift in the Middle East, five years after the Arab uprisings erupted and plunged Turkey's southern neighbor Syria into civil war.

But the failed attempt could still destabilize the NATO member and U.S. ally, which lies between Europe and the chaos of Syria.