Military elite go on trial over failed Turkey coup

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Nearly 200 Turkish military officers, including three top retired commanders, went on trial yesterday charged with plotting against the government in a case likely to strain ties with the secularist armed forces.

Amid tight security, the officers filed into a courtroom near Istanbul to answer accusations over an alleged 2003 conspiracy to destabilise Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party government and pave the way for military intervention.

The "Operation Sledgehammer" case, which included plans to bomb historic mosques and provoke conflict with Greece, reflects a lingering mistrust between the military and a ruling party that critics say retains Islamist leanings. The defendants deny any conspiracy and say scenarios discussed at a military seminar seven years ago were a war game exercise.

"When the time comes in court for the defence I will say that this case does not have a legitimate basis," said General Cetin Dogan, the former head of Turkey's First Army. "I am very relaxed. I am not a man of coups."

Retired commanders of the navy and air force, Admiral Ozden Ornek and General Halil Ibrahim Firtina, were also among the 196 defendants. All but nine defendants attended the first hearing, which was not expected to go beyond confirming identities.

Since coming to power, the AK Party government has used reforms designed to boost Turkey's EU membership bid as a means to reining in the authority of an army that has toppled four civilian governments since 1960.

Mr Erdogan has also driven an economic transformation which has shifted power to an emerging business class from old elites made up of generals, judges and educators devoted to the secular principles of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.