WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US-based cleric that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says is behind an attempted military coup in Turkey has denied any involvement, suggesting that the coup could have been staged by the president himself.
Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in a mountain town in Pennsylvania, of being behind Friday's (July 15) bloody putsch attempt. He wants Washington to extradite Gulen to Turkey.
The 75-year-old Gulen was once a close Erdogan ally but the two fell out in recent years as the Turkish president became suspicious of Gulen's movement, Hizmet, and its powerful presence in Turkish society, including in the media, police and judiciary.
Gulen condemned the military uprising "in the strongest terms" shortly after the coup attempt began late Friday.
And in a rare meeting on Saturday (July 16) with a small group of reporters at his compound in the town of Saylorsburg, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, Gulen rejected charges of being the coup mastermind.
"I don't know who my followers are," Gulen said when asked if any of his backers were involved in the coup attempt, according to The New York Times.
"Since I do not know these individuals, I cannot speak of their potential involvement. It could be something from the opposition or nationalists. I have been away from Turkey for 30 years and have not been following this."
Gulen moved to the United States in 1999, before he was charged with treason in Turkey. He has since led a secluded life in Pennsylvania and rarely makes public appearances.
"There is a possibility that it could be a staged coup and it could be meant for further accusations" against Gulen and Hizmet members, the preacher said, according to The Guardian.
Gulen said that he rejects all military interventions and fully supports a government that emerges from free and fair elections.
"After military coups in Turkey," he said, according to The Guardian, "I have been pressured and I have been imprisoned. I have been tried and faced various forms of harassment."
Now that Turkey "is on the path to democracy, it cannot turn back," he said.
Erdogan appealed to President Barack Obama in a Saturday speech to extradite the "man who lives in Pennsylvania" to Turkey.
"The United States - you must extradite that person," he told thousands of supporters in Istanbul on Saturday, without referring to Gulen by name.
Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling in Luxembourg, said that Washington has not received any formal extradition request.
Washington has invited the Turkish government "to present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny and the United States will accept that and look at it and make judgements about it appropriately," Kerry said.
The Guardian asked Gulen if he would have returned to Turkey had the coup succeeded.
"Indeed, I miss my homeland a lot," Gulen said.
"But there is another important factor, which is freedom. I am here, away from the political troubles in Turkey and I live with my freedom."