By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court on Saturday ordered the formal arrest of 12 more police officers, including the former head of Istanbul's intelligence unit, pending charges they may have illegally wiretapped Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, media said.
The detention of 115 police officers in overnight raids earlier this week ratcheted up a power struggle between Erdogan and his erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gulen, an influential Islamic scholar based in Pennsylvania, whose followers took up key posts in the police and judiciary during Erdogan's 11 years in power.
The alliance began to crumble in 2010 and spilled into the public in late 2013 when police arrested the sons of three cabinet ministers on corruption allegations and audio recordings of Erdogan, his family and ministers that allegedly depicted them committing wrongdoings were leaked on YouTube.
Fuat Ali Yilmazer, who oversaw intelligence for Istanbul police and is accused of forming and leading a criminal gang, was among those formally arrested, CNN Turk reported. Others are accused of illegal wiretapping, forging documents and espionage.
Eight others were arrested on Friday.
INVESTIGATION MAY WIDEN
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said on Friday the probe into wiretapping would likely reach the judiciary.
Erdogan, who is running for president in an Aug. 10 election, had promised a "witch hunt" against the "parallel state," the name he gave Gulen's followers in the bureaucracy.
He has accused them of a litany of crimes, including organizing 2013 mass anti-government protests and using the corruption charges in an attempt topple him in a coup.
The operation follows a stream of purges targeting the police, judiciary and other state institutions this year which government critics have condemned as a symptom of Erdogan's tightening grip on power.
The police officers say the arrests are politically motivated.
Yakup Saygili was a police officer expelled from the force in March after leading the financial-crimes unit that looked into the corruption charges against Erdogan's inner circle.
"When Erdogan said he would undertake a witch hunt, bureaucrats took that as an order. That's the reality in Turkey," Saygili told Reuters. "Erdogan gave the signal that an operation would happen, and so it did."
Erdogan denies he has intervened in the judicial process.
Critics say Erdogan's charged rhetoric has polarized politics and is aimed at winning more votes.
The officers were accused of making up an investigation into an alleged terrorist group linked with Iran as a pretence to tap the phones of Erdogan, ministers and the country's top spy.
That probe, targeting 251 people, had been dismissed due to a lack of evidence after a three-year investigation during which 2,280 people were wire-tapped.
The scene at the Istanbul courthouse on Saturday was chaotic, with dozens of family members keeping a vigil outside the building, television footage showed.
Dozens of detained officers tried to leave the courthouse after the legal four-day pre-charge detention period expired on Saturday, then staged a sit-in protest after court police barred them from leaving.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)