Turkey PM vows to go after rivals over mass graft probe

In this picture taken on Wednesday, Dec 18, 2013, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey. Turkey's Prime Minister on Sunday, Dec 22, 2013, warned his rivals he would "break their hands" if
In this picture taken on Wednesday, Dec 18, 2013, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey. Turkey's Prime Minister on Sunday, Dec 22, 2013, warned his rivals he would "break their hands" if they used a widening graft scandal to undermine his rule, as thousands of angry protesters called for the government's resignation. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

ANKARA (AFP) - Turkey's Prime Minister on Sunday, Dec 22, 2013, warned his rivals he would "break their hands" if they used a widening graft scandal to undermine his rule, as thousands of angry protesters called for the government's resignation.

"Everyone will know their place," Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan told cheering supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in his latest combative response to a high-profile probe into bribery and corruption allegations that has ensnared Cabinet ministers.

"Whoever dares to harm, stir up or set traps in this country, we will come to break those hands," the Premier said in a speech in the Black Sea province of Giresun.

His heated remarks came as riot police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse several thousand demonstrators in Istanbul calling on the AKP government to step down.

Many were protesting against grand urban development projects, but some symbolically held up shoe boxes to show their fury over recent claims of widespread bribery by members of Mr Erdogan's Islamic-leaning government.

In a further sign of growing public anger, Galatasaray football fans in Istanbul chanted "Everywhere is bribery, everywhere is corruption" at the start of a home game against Trabzonspor.

The words were a deliberate play on a chant that was often heard during the huge anti-government protests that took over Istanbul's Taksim Square in June: "Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance".

The high-level graft probe has shaken Turkey's political establishment, exposing a bitter feud between the AKP and influential Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen whose followers hold key positions in the police, judiciary and secret services.

Twenty-four people have been charged so far in connection with the investigation, including the sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler and Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, as well as the chief executive of state-owned Halkbank.

Police also seized US$4.5 million (S$5.7 million) in cash hidden in shoe boxes in Halkbank chief executive Suleyman Aslan's home, local media reported last Tuesday.

Those detained are suspected of numerous offences including accepting and facilitating bribes for development projects and securing construction permits for protected areas in exchange for money.

Mr Erdogan has described the sweeping corruption probe, which comes ahead of crucial March municipal polls, as a smear operation against his government.

A day after their sons were charged with acting as intermediaries for giving and taking bribes, the interior and economy ministers broke their silence to deny the accusations.

"It is out of the question for us to be involved in any unlawful affairs," Mr Guler wrote on Twitter on Sunday, while Mr Caglayan railed against a "big trap" set for the AKP government.

Observers have linked last week's police raids targeting scores of people to tensions between Mr Erdogan and followers of the Gulen movement which boiled over when the government announced plans to shut down a network of private schools run by the Islamic cleric, a major source of revenue for the group.

Gulenists were previously key backers of the AKP, helping it to win three elections in a row since it first took office in 2002.

Mr Erdogan has responded to the mass detentions by sacking dozens of police officials, including the Istanbul police chief, for cooperating with the investigation without permission.

Local media reported on Sunday that another 25 police chiefs had been fired in the fast-moving saga.

A lawyer for Mr Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, has denied that he was involved in the graft investigation, and Mr Gulen himself has lashed out at those responsible for the police purge, saying that the assault was aimed at "finishing off" his Hizmet (Service) movement.

Mr Erdogan on Sunday again blamed international plotters and "very dirty alliances" for attempting to create chaos, and voiced his support for the ministers caught up in the probe.

"It is not all about corruption," he said. "The nation will respond to those who attempt to set traps in order to tarnish ministers." The Premier, whose image was already bruised by June's anti-government unrest, is facing a key test as the country braces for an election cycle next year starting with the local polls in March.

"The nation will win on March 30, democracy will win," he said. "We will emerge stronger as long as we remain united." In the midst of the worst scandal of his 11-year rule, the Premier was due to leave the country late on Sunday for a two-day official visit to Pakistan.