By Suzan Fraser
ANKARA, TURKEY: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel foreign ambassadors on Saturday, blaming them for a vast corruption and bribery investigation mounting against people close to his government. Riot police, meanwhile, stood guard as hundreds protested against Erdogan’s government.
Erdogan’s accusations come after two government ministers’ sons were arrested, along with several others including Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank.
In total, 24 people were jailed pending trial, accused of taking or facilitating bribes, the Dogan news agency reported. Turkish media reports said the investigation relates to illicit money transfers to Iran and large-scale bribery for construction projects.
Erdogan said the “dirty operation” was timed to harm his government before March local elections.
The elections are seen as a vote of confidence in his decade-long tenure which has been shaken by summer protests over what critics call growing authoritarian rule. Erdogan is expected to run in August’s presidential elections as he is barred from running for a fourth term as prime minister. General elections are scheduled for 2015.
“Some ambassadors are engaged in provocative acts,” Erdogan said Saturday in the Black Sea city of Samsun. “Stick to your duties. If you exceed your powers, this government will exert its authorities to the limit. We are not obliged to keep you in this country.”
Some 500 people staged protests in the capital Ankara on Saturday, calling on the government to resign over the corruption allegations. Similar protests were also held in the cities of Istanbul and Izmir. Some of the protesters made a casket of shoe boxes.
Turkish media reports said police seized US$4.5 million in cash stashed in shoe boxes from Aslan’s home.
Although he didn’t name the ambassadors, Erdogan has backed allegations in pro-government newspapers which accuse the United States and its ambassador of being behind the corruption probe that has ensnared close political allies, including Cabinet ministers and the mayor of an Istanbul district that is a stronghold of his Islamic-based Justice and Development Party.
The U.S. Embassy denied accusations as “lies and slander.”
It said through Twitter in Turkish: “No one should jeopardize Turkish-US relations through baseless claims.”