Turkey reveals scale of eavesdropping by spy agency

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkey's spy agency eavesdrops on more than two thousand people, mostly foreigners, the deputy prime minister said on Saturday as Parliament debated controversial new espionage powers.

"As of today, National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) eavesdrops on 2,473 people. More than half of them are foreigners," Besir Atalay told reporters in Ankara.

He said the espionage - which currently requires an individual court order for each target - was primarily used to uncover suspected "terrorists".

Parliament began debating a new bill on Saturday, aimed at giving the agency a free hand in carrying out undercover missions and surveillance in Turkey and abroad without the need for a court order.

Facing fierce criticism from opposition lawmakers, the government withdrew on Saturday a controversial clause that would have made Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan head of the MIT's intelligence coordination board.

Mr Atalay also announced that the prison sentences demanded for journalists who publish leaked MIT documents would be reduced. An original version of the bill had stipulated sentences of up to 12 years.

Mr Erdogan has come under fire at home and abroad for what critics see as increasingly authoritarian policies, including curbs on the judiciary and the Internet.

The government has also embarked on a massive purge of police and prosecutors in the wake of a damaging corruption probe launched in mid-December implicating key government allies.