ISTANBUL (AP) — Asserting that "all the evidence" points to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric as the mastermind of last week's failed coup, Turkey's government on Tuesday fired tens of thousands of teachers, university deans and others accused of ties to the plot and demanded the cleric's extradition.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the issue in a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama, and his spokesman said the government was preparing a formal extradition request for the cleric, Fethullah Gulen. But he also suggested that the U.S. government shouldn't require the facts before extraditing him.
"A person of this kind can easily be extradited on grounds of suspicion," said the spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin. "And there is very strong suspicion for his involvement, for Gulen's involvement, in this coup attempt. So this is sufficient ground."
Later, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Turkey had submitted materials related to Gulen and the administration was reviewing whether they amounted to a formal extradition request. Earnest added that a decision on whether to extradite would be made under a longstanding treaty between the two countries, and wouldn't be made by Obama.
The extradition demand is likely to strain U.S.-Turkey ties as the Obama administration refers the matter to the Justice Department, which will determine whether the Turkish government has established probable cause that a crime was committed.
Gulen has strongly denied the government's charges, suggesting that Friday's attempted coup could have been staged as a pretext for the Erdogan government to seize even more power.
"It is ridiculous, irresponsible and false to suggest I had anything to do with the horrific failed coup," the cleric said in a statement on Tuesday, accusing Erdogan of going to "any length necessary to solidify his power and persecute his critics.
"I urge the U.S. government to reject any effort to abuse the extradition process to carry out political vendettas," the statement said.
The latest purges were intended to blunt the influence of Gulen, an Erodgan rival who has been in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s and who the government has long accused of being behind a "parallel terrorist organization." They follow earlier aggressive moves by Erdogan's administration against Gulen loyalists in the government, police and judiciary following corruption probes targeting Erdogan associates and family members in late 2013 — prosecutions the government says were orchestrated by Gulen.
The crackdown was escalated Tuesday, as the government announced the firing of nearly 24,000 teachers and Interior Ministry employees and demanded the resignations of another 1,577 university deans as well as hundreds of other government employees.
Tuesday's dismissals touched every aspect of government life.
Turkish media, in rapid-fire reports, said the Education Ministry had fired 15,200 educators, while the Interior Ministry dismissed 8,777 employees and Turkey's Board of Higher Education called for the deans' resignations. In addition, 1,500 finance ministry employees were fired, 257 people working at the prime minister's office were sacked and 492 staffers at the Directorate of Religious Affairs were dismissed, including clerics, preachers and religious teachers.
Tuesday's firings come on top of roughly 9,000 people who have been detained by the government, including security personnel, judges, prosecutors, religious figures and others. Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency says courts have ordered 85 generals and admirals jailed pending trial over their roles in the coup attempt. Dozens of others were still being questioned.
Asked about the scale of the purges, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner cautioned Turkish authorities not to overreach.
"The types of arrests and roundups that you cite have not gone unnoticed by us," he said.
Erdogan, meanwhile, indicated the government was considering reinstating the death penalty, a practice abolished in 2004 as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Several European officials have said such a move would be the end of Turkey's attempts to join.
Addressing hundreds of supporters outside his Istanbul residence early Tuesday, Erdogan responded to calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty with the simple statement: "You cannot put aside the people's demands."
"In a country where our youths are killed with tanks and bombs, if we stay silent, as political people we will be held responsible in the afterlife," Erdogan said, pointing out that capital punishment exists around the world, including in the United States and China.
The violence surrounding the Friday night coup attempt claimed the lives of 210 government supporters and 24 coup plotters, according to the government.
On Tuesday, foreign media were taken on a tour of government buildings that were targeted by F-16 air strikes, including the headquarters of the Turkish special forces police where 47 officers were killed. The explosions damaged the roof of one of the buildings and tore down its front wall, exposing dust-covered bunk beds. A second building was riddled with bullet fire from helicopters, while a charred X-ray machine could be seen inside the wrecked security clearing area at the entrance of the complex.
Esra Kokcu, accompanied by relatives, was visiting the site where her cousin, Selmani Terzi, was severely wounded and lost a leg in the attack. She took out her smartphone to show reporters pictures of Terzi in his hospital bed.
"These people are not human," she said of the coup-plotters.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, meanwhile, lashed out at Europe, whose leaders have expressed concerns over the purges underway across Turkey's key state institutions.
"We thank our European friends for their support against the coup, however their sentences starting with 'but' did not please us at all," he said.
Regarding Turkey's demand that Gulen be extradited, Yildirim compared the situation to the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We will present them more proof than they'll know what to do with," he said. "I want to ask our friends in the U.S., did you ask for proof when you demanded the terrorists after the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11? When you didn't bother looking for proof for bin Laden, why are you demanding evidence for Fetullah Gulen when the evidence is clear as day? You should give up defending that terrorist leader."
Fraser reported from Ankara. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Cinar Kiper in Istanbul and Desmond Butler and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.