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NATO member Turkey on Wednesday deepened a crackdown on suspected followers of a U.S.-based cleric it blames for a failed coup, dismissing nearly 1,700 military personnel and shutting 131 media outlets.
So far, tens of thousands of people — including police, judges and teachers — have been suspended or placed under investigation since the failed putsch. Turkey alleges it was staged by a faction within the military loyal to the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania but whose movement has a wide following in Turkey where it runs a large network of schools, has denied any involvement in the coup.
Western governments and human rights groups, while condemning the abortive coup in which at least 246 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured, have expressed concern over the extent of the crackdown. Some suggest President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be using it to stifle dissent and tighten his grip on power.
Erdogan says the Gulen movement threatened democracy by attempting to build a "parallel state" within the military, media and civil service.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the department was "deeply concerned" by the reports of a media crackdown.
"The United States supports freedom of expression around the world. And we have concerns when any country makes a move to close down media outlets and restrict this universal value," Kirby said. "We expect Turkish authorities to uphold their assurances that the Turkish government will protect the rule of law and fundamental freedoms."
On Wednesday, the military dishonorably discharged 1,684 of its personnel, a Turkish government official said, citing their role in the failed coup. Of those, 149 were generals and admirals, said the official, who requested anonymity. Data show that would represent roughly 40 percent of all generals and admirals in Turkey's military.
Broadcaster CNN Turk has reported that more than 15,000 people, including around 10,000 soldiers had been detained so far over the coup, citing the interior minister. Of those, more than 8,000 were formally arrested pending trial, it said.
In addition, the government said in its official gazette that three news agencies, 16 television channels, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishers have been ordered shut down.
These moves, which follow the closure of other media outlets with suspected Gulenist ties as well as the detention of journalists will further stoke concerns among rights groups and Western governments about the scale of Erdogan's post-coup purges.
The United States said on Wednesday it understood Turkey's need to hold perpetrators of the attempted coup to account, but said the detention of more journalists was part of a "troubling trend."
Turkey ordered another 47 journalists detained on Wednesday, singling out columnists and other staff of the now defunct Zaman newspaper, the government official said. Authorities in March shut down Zaman, widely seen as the Gulen movement's flagship media organization.
The media reported on Monday that arrest warrants had been issued for 42 other journalists, 16 of whom have so far been taken into custody.
Erdogan's ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party and opposition parties, usually bitterly divided, have demonstrated a rare spirit of unity since the abortive coup and are seeking consensus on constitutional amendments partly aimed at "cleansing" the state apparatus of Gulenist supporters.
Also on Wednesday a government official said Turkish special forces were still hunting in the hills around the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris for a group of 11 commandos who are believed to have tried to capture or kill Erdogan on the night of the coup, when he was on holiday in the area.
Erdogan, a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, will chair an annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) on Thursday after vowing to restructure the armed forces following the coup.
The General Staff said 35 planes, including 24 fighter jets, 37 helicopters, 74 tanks and three ships had been used by the coup plotters, NTV reported. It put the number of soldiers from the Gulenist network involved in the attempted putsch at 8,651, or about 1.5 percent of the armed forces.
Erdogan has also signaled the country might restore the death penalty in the wake of the failed coup, citing strong public support for such a move. The European Union has made clear this would scupper Turkey's decades-old bid to join the bloc.