As armoured tanks rumbled to a halt on the Bosphorus Bridge and F16 fighter jets screeched through the night sky; one of the Middle East’s key power brokers and the dividing line between the continents of Europe and Asia was tipped into bloody chaos.
The coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began at 7.30pm on Friday night when army vehicles raced through Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. Tanks were deployed outside the country’s main airport and across the city’s two main bridges.
A soldier turned to stunned passers-by and simply said: “It’s a coup, go home.”
Havoc ensued on Istanbul’s main thoroughfare, Istiklal, with people fleeing in all directions, and restaurants and shops closing.
In the capital, Ankara, home to the Turkish military’s headquarters, gunshots rang out while jets and helicopters flew overhead as the coup plotters took the army chief of staff, General Hulusi Akar, hostage.
Tanks also surrounded the Turkish parliament building in Ankara and opened fire.
Access to social media was restricted shortly after news broke that a military coup was under way while soldiers entered state broadcaster TRT and ordered news anchors to read their statement on air at gunpoint: “Turkish armed forces have completely taken over the administration to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged.”
A curfew was declared across parts of the country leading some Turks to stockpile food and water, and withdraw cash from banks, amid fears of a potential administrative meltdown in the coming days.
The chaos came amid a period of political turmoil in Turkey – a Nato member and key Western ally in the fight against the Islamic State group – that critics blame on Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Erdogan was on a seaside holiday in Marmaris when tanks rolled into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul.
Soldiers backed by tanks blocked entry to Istanbul’s airport for a couple of hours before being overtaken by pro-government crowds carrying Turkish flags, according to footage broadcast by the Dogan news agency.
The military did not appear unified, as top commanders went on television to condemn the action and order troops back to their barracks.
Erdogan, appearing on television over a mobile phone, had urged supporters to go on to the streets to defend his government, and large crowds heeded his call. People faced off against troops who had blocked key bridges over the Bosporus.
By early yesterday, the putsch appeared to have fizzled out, as police, soldiers and civilians loyal to the government confronted coup plotters.
“They have pointed the people’s guns against the people. The president, whom 52 per cent of the people brought to power, is in charge. This government brought to power by the people is in charge,” Erdogan told large crowds after landing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport yesterday morning.
Erdogan supporters were seen on TV climbing on to a tank near Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Another man lay down in front of one.
In images broadcast on CNN-Turk, dozens of soldiers left their posts with their hands held up, surrendering to government forces. Discarded gear was strewn on the ground while flag-waving people clambered all over the tanks.
Fighter jets were also reported to have shot down a military helicopter used by the plotters.
NTV television showed a Turkish colonel and other soldiers on their knees being searched and taken into custody at military headquarters. The Hurriyet newspaper said some soldiers told them they were not even aware they were part of a coup attempt but thought they were on military manoeuvres.
Colonels and generals implicated in the rebellion were fired and loyal troops rescued General Hulusi Akar from an air base on the outskirts of Ankara.
A Blackhawk military helicopter with seven Turkish military personnel and one civilian landed in the Greek city of Alexandroupolis, where the passengers requested asylum, according to Greece’s defence ministry. While Turkey demanded their extradition, Greece said it would hand back the helicopter and consider the men’s asylum requests.
Fighting continued into the early morning, with the sound of huge blasts echoing across Istanbul and Ankara, including at least one bomb that hit the parliament complex. Television footage showed broken glass and other debris strewn across a lobby. CNN-Turk said two bombs exploded near the presidential palace, killing five people and wounding a number of others.
The uprising appears to have been led by low level ranks of the military. Turkey’s main opposition parties condemned it.
Turkish opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said that political parties should take a “joint stand” against such attempts.
Turkey’s acting military chief of staff after his predecessor was kidnapped, General Umit Dundar, said those from the military who took part in the coup “will not go unpunished”.
Erdogan has blamed the coup on factions loyal to dissident Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who is a former ally turned prominent critic.Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, denies any involvement in the coup. The cleric, who heads the Hizmet movement, has been frequently accused by Erdogan of trying to destabilise his government.
The president’s bureau put the total death toll after the uprising at 265, including 161 civilians and 104 “plotters”.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said yesterday that 2,839 soldiers, including high-ranking officers, had been arrested. The state media said 2,745 Turkish judges had been dismissed.
Yildirim described the night as “a black mark on Turkish democracy” and said the perpetrators “will receive every punishment they deserve”.