ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — 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 say 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.
Pro-government newspaper, Yeni Safak, wrote on Saturday: "Get out of this country," a headline that was apparently directed at US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone.
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."
The pro-government newspapers have also accused Israel of being involved in fueling the investigation.
The accusations mirror government moves to deflect criticism by blaming foreign forces for the summer's protests which were sparked by a harsh police crackdown on a small environmental sit-in.
Commentators in Turkey have accused the United States and Israel of being behind an attempt to pressure Halkbank, a Turkish financial institution. The bank, whose CEO was among those arrested in the investigation Saturday, has been a source of friction between Washington and Ankara over allegations that it was facilitating trade with Iran at a time that the West has been trying to ramp up sanctions.
Saturday's arrests included Salih Kaan Caglayan, the son of Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Baris Guler, the son of Interior Minister Muammer Guler.
Erdogan's government has been in power for more than a decade, winning three successive elections on the strength of Turkey's relatively robust economy and promises to crackdown on corruption. It has portrayed itself as being virtuous and incorruptible, often emphasizing the party's initials "AK", which means "white" or "pure" in Turkish.
The government has removed dozens of police officials from duty since the scandal erupted, including Istanbul's police chief, fueling accusations of an attempt to impede the investigation.
In another move likely to anger critics, the government changed regulations on police operations on Saturday, forcing officers to seek the permission of most senior officials and prosecutors for investigations and arrests.
The investigation comes amid a deepening feud and a power struggle between Erdogan's government and an influential Islamic movement whose leader, Fethullah Gulen, is in self-imposed exile in the United States. Some believe that Gulen's followers — who are reported to have risen to powerful positions within Turkey's police and judiciary — instigated the investigations.
Gulen on Saturday mounted an unprecedented attack on the government, accusing it of ignoring the corruption allegations but going after police investigating the charges.
"Those who don't see the thief but go after those who chase the thief ... May Allah bring fire to their homes," Gulen said in a video message to his followers that was shown on Turkish television stations.