Turkish police clash with anti-government protesters

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkish police on Friday fired tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets against anti-government protesters in Istanbul demanding Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan resign over a corruption scandal.

The violence came hours after a Turkish court blocked a government decree that forces police to inform their superiors about investigations.

Erdogan, who faces the most serious challenge to his decade-long rule, called the graft investigation "an obstacle to building a new Turkey."

He was speaking in the city of Sakarya after the Council of State annulled the government decree.

"This aggression targets neither me nor my party, but [the] Turkish nation, its independence and future," Erdogan said, according to the Anadolu news agency.

The crisis started December 17 after police raids in the high-level corruption investigation led to the arrests of 24 people, including the sons of three ministers and the chief executive of state-run Halkbank, Suleyman Aslan.

The allegations relate to bribery involving public tenders, gold smuggling and illegal dealings with the Iranian government to circumvent international sanctions.

The three ministers - for economy, environment and urban planning, and interior - whose sons were implicated resigned Wednesday.

Later that day, Erdogan reshuffled his 26-member cabinet, announcing 10 new ministers. He replaced Egemen Bagis, the minister for EU affairs, who was accused of involvement in the corruption scandal but had not stepped down.

On Friday, three lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who were threatened with expulsion for publicly criticizing the government, resigned.

Former culture minister Ertugrul Gunay, Izmir parliamentarian Erdal Kalkan and Ankara lawmaker Haluk Ozdalga followed former interior minister Idris Naim Sahin in submitting their resignations.

"The party evolved in two different wings: The wide base of people who have been oppressed and an overbearing mentality on the top. This mentality has no chance now," Gunay said.

Kalkan wrote on Twitter: "I resign from the AKP, letting you know that the world is turning and our people are not stupid," the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

"Political parties are not [entities that can be managed] as if someone owns the place. Particularly Mr Tayyip Erdogan. They are social entities brought into existence by millions of people," Kalkan said.

Ozdalga appealed to President Abdullah Gul to intervene, calling the corruption allegations a "state and democracy crisis."

Meanwhile, the Turkish lira fell to a record low of 2.1761 against the dollar, and anti-government protests were called for later Friday in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

The country's powerful military issued a statement Friday that it doesn't want to get involved in political debates.

The military, which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of the state and secularism, has staged three military coups since 1960 and a "soft coup" in 1997. Elements of the military are known to be opposed to Erdogan's AKP, which has Islamist roots. But since he came to power, he has succeeded in sidelining the military from politics.

On Thursday, Istanbul public prosecutor Muammer Akkas was removed from the corruption investigation. "All my colleagues and the public should know that as a public prosecutor, I was prevented from carrying out the investigation," he was quoted as saying by Zaman newspaper on Friday.

The report said the action against Akkas came a day after he had ordered the detention of 30 suspects, who included several lawmakers and businessmen. It said Istanbul's police department did not comply with his order.

Erdogan has repeatedly denounced the corruption inquiry as a conspiracy against his government. He has said that local and international forces were conspiring to undermine Turkey's economic progress.

Observers in Turkey and local media have said the corruption inquiry is part of a growing political feud between Erdogan and his former ally, Fethullah Gulen.

The Islamic scholar who lives in the United States is believed to have powerful connections within the Turkish police force and judiciary. He once backed Erdogan's party, helping it to victory in three successive elections.

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