ISTANBUL, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkish special forces captured a group of rebel commandos who tried to seize or kill President Tayyip Erdogan during a failed coup, and a government minister said plotters would “never see God’s sun as long as they breathe”.
Drones and helicopters pinpointed the location of the 11 fugitive commandos in forested hills around the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris after a two-week manhunt, an official said on Monday. They were part of a group that attacked a hotel where Erdogan was holidaying on the night of the July 15 coup bid.
The operation took place overnight, after the government tightened its control over the military by dismissing over 1,000 more soldiers, widening the post-coup purges of state institutions that have targeted tens of thousands of people.
The coup attempt and resulting purges have shocked Turkey, which last saw a violent military power grab in 1980, and have shaken confidence in the stability of a NATO member key to the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State and to stopping illegal migration to Europe.
Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said coup plotters would bitterly regret trying to overthrow Turkey’s democracy, in words reflecting the depth of anger among the thousands of Turks who have attended rallies to condemn the coup night after night.
“We will make them beg. We will stuff them into holes, they will suffer such punishment in those holes that they will never see God’s sun as long as they breathe,” Zeybekci was quoted by the Dogan news agency as telling an anti-coup protest in the western town of Usak over the weekend.
“They will not hear a human voice again. ‘Kill us’ they will beg,” he said.
Erdogan blames followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for the coup bid and has vowed to rid state institutions of his influence. But the extent of the purges, and suggestions that the death penalty could be reintroduced, have sparked concern in Western capitals and among rights groups.
Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, has denied involvement.
Erdogan and his government have been angered by the response of Western allies to the abortive coup and its aftermath, accusing them of being more concerned about the rights of the plotters than the gravity of the threat Turkey has faced.
The United States’ top military official, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, was due to meet Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Ankara on Monday after visiting the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, used by the U.S.-led coalition for bombing raids in Syria.
More than 230 people were killed in the attempted coup, many of them civilians, and more than 2,000 injured. Erdogan was almost killed or captured, officials close to him have said, an outcome which could have tipped Turkey into conflict.
Since the coup bid, more than 60,000 people in the military, judiciary, civil service and education have been detained, suspended or placed under investigation, leading to concern among NATO allies about the scale of the purges. Around 40 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been dismissed.
Nearly 1,400 more members of the armed forces were dismissed and the top military council was stacked with government ministers on Sunday, moves designed by Erdogan to tighten civilian control over the military.
“Our aim is that we set up such a system that nobody within the armed forces would ever consider a coup again,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told a news conference in Ankara, explaining the latest reforms. He said a restructuring of Turkey’s intelligence structures may follow.
Similar “democracy demonstrations” to the one attended by Zeybekci, rallies called for by Erdogan, have been held in squares night after night across the country of nearly 80 million since the coup.
The foreign ministry summoned the charge d’affaires at the German embassy on Monday after German authorities prevented Erdogan from addressing such a rally by Turks in Cologne on Sunday by video link, a senior official in Ankara said.
The top German court ruled against the live link amid concerns that political tensions in Turkey could spill over into Germany, home to Europe’s largest Turkish diaspora.
“It would be absolutely unacceptable for Germany to even mention democracy, the rule of law, human rights and freedoms to Turkey after this point,” Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag wrote in a furious response on Twitter.
Turkey’s crackdown after the failed coup has made European leaders even more uneasy about their dependence on the country to help stem illegal migration, in return for which Turks have been promised visa-free travel to the European Union.
Turkey will have to back out of the agreement if the EU does not deliver visa liberalisation as promised, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as telling Germany’s daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Having been tipped off that he was in danger on the night of the coup bid, Erdogan had fled the hotel in Marmaris by the time the rogue commandos arrived in an attempt to capture him.
After a manhunt involving around 1,000 members of the security forces, the 11 were captured – dressed in camouflage and trying to cross a stream – after a tip-off from a man who spotted them as he was hunting wild boar, the Dogan agency said.
Video footage showed a dozen or so anti-coup demonstrators jeering the 11 detained soldiers, some of whom had swollen faces and bruises. The demonstrators waved Turkish flags and chanted “Traitors! We want the death penalty!”
More than 1,700 military personnel were dishonourably discharged last week for their role in the putsch, which saw a faction of the military commandeer tanks, helicopters and warplanes in an attempt to topple the government.
The new wave of army expulsions and the overhaul of the Supreme Military Council (YAS), announced in the official state gazette on Sunday, came hours after Erdogan said he also planned to shut down existing military academies and put the armed forces under the command of the Defence Ministry.
According to the gazette, the 1,389 military personnel targeted on Sunday were dismissed for suspected links to the Islamic preacher Gulen.
Erdogan has said that Gulen harnessed his extensive network of schools, charities and businesses, built up in Turkey and abroad over decades, to create a “parallel state” that aimed to take over the country.
The cleric has however condemned the coup.
“If there is anything I told anyone about this verbally, if there is any phone conversation, if one-tenth of this accusation is correct … I would bend my neck and would say, ‘They are telling the truth. Let them take me away. Let them hang me,'” Gulen said in an interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Gareth Jones and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul, Ercan Gurses in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Gareth Jones and Pravin Char)