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Military attaches, diplomats flee in Turkey’s post-coup inquiry

Two Turkish military attaches in Greece fled to Italy, others were caught overseas and some diplomats were on the run after being recalled as part of an inquiry into last month’s failed military coup, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Thursday.

Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest armed forces, has dismissed or detained thousands of soldiers, including nearly half of its generals, since the July 15 coup bid, in which rogue troops commandeered tanks and warplanes in an attempt to seize power.

Western allies worry President Tayyip Erdogan is using the failed putsch and purge to tighten his grip on power, but many Turkish officials are frustrated over what they see as a lack of Western sympathy over a violent coup in which 240 people died.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told private broadcaster NTV that two military attaches in Greece – a naval officer and an army officer – had fled by car and ferry to Italy, but Turkish officials would seek their return.

Cavusoglu said a military attache based in Kuwait had also tried to escape through Saudi Arabia, but had been sent back, as well as two generals based in Afghanistan who had been caught in Dubai by UAE authorities and returned to Turkey.

The hunt for fugitive Turkish officers and officials overseas expands from the crackdown at home, where tens of thousands of troops, police, teachers and bureaucrats have been detained, dismissed or put under investigation for alleged links to the coup, which authorities blame on a US-based cleric.

“There are those who have escaped. There have been escapees among our diplomats as well,” Cavusoglu told NTV in an interview. “As of yesterday, time has run out for those initially called back. We will carry out the legal operations for those who have not returned.”

Interior Minister Efkan Ala was quoted on Thursday as saying almost 76,100 civil servants have now been suspended.

The Greek foreign ministry said the two attaches fled before Ankara asked them to return to Turkey, and before officials cancelled their diplomatic passports.

US officials told Reuters this week that a Turkish military officer on a US-based assignment for NATO is also seeking asylum in the United States after being recalled by the government.

One official said the foreign ministry sent instructions to Turkish diplomatic missions around the world where those suspected of links to the plotters were thought to be working, ordering them back to Ankara as part of the investigations.

Cavusoglu has previously said around 300 members of the foreign ministry have been suspended since the coup plot, including two ambassadors. He said on Thursday two officials in Bangladesh fled to New York, and another official had fled to Japan through Moscow.

“We will return these traitors to Turkey,” Cavusoglu said.

Erdogan accuses US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen of staging the attempted putsch, harnessing his extensive network of schools, charities and businesses built up in Turkey and abroad over decades to create a “parallel structure”.

Gulen denies any involvement and has condemned the coup bid. But he says Erdogan is using the purges to shore up his own power in Turkey.

The abortive July 15 coup and the subsequent purge of the military has raised concern about the stability of Turkey, a key member of the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State and battling an insurgency at home by Kurdish militants.

Turkey has been angered by the Western response to the attempted coup, viewing Europe as more concerned about the rights of the plotters than the events themselves and the United States as reluctant to extradite Gulen.

That has chilled relations with Washington and the European Union, bringing repeated Turkish warnings about an EU deal to stem the flow of migrants. Erdogan has also repaired ties with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, a detente Western officials worry may be used to pressure the West.

“Sooner or later the United States of America will make a choice. Either Turkey or FETO,” Erdogan told a rally late on Wednesday, using an abbreviation standing for the “Gulenist Terror Group” which is how Ankara refers to Gulen’s movement.

A total of 160 members of the military wanted in connection with the failed coup are still at large, including nine generals, officials have said.

The purge inside Turkey also presses on. Turkey has cancelled the work permits of 27,424 people working in the education sector as part of its investigations, Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz said on Thursday.

Ankara prosecutors on Thursday also ordered the detention of 648 judges and prosecutors suspended a day earlier, Hurriyet newspaper and broadcasters said. They are among 3,500 judges and prosecutors – a quarter of the national total – suspended in the coup probe, according to state-run Anadolu Agency.

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