ANKARA : Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Saturday warned he may expel some foreign ambassadors over “provocative actions”, amid mounting tensions over an anti-graft probe that has ensnared government allies. “Some ambassadors are engaged in provocative actions... Do your job,” Erdogan said in televised remarks in the Black Sea city of Samsun. “We don’t have to keep you in our country.” Erdogan’s remarks were considered a veiled threat to US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, after he was reported to have commented on the unfolding bribery scandal.
“Get out of this country!” headlined the Yeni Safak newspaper, with a picture of the US envoy on its front page. According to some pro-government media outlets, Ricciardone said Washington had warned the state-owned Halkbank to cut its ties with sanctions-hit Iran.
The bank is at the centre of a high-profile graft probe that has touched the heart of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Halkbank’s chief executive, Suleyman Aslan, was one of scores of people, including the sons of cabinet ministers, arrested in the case. Aslan was charged early Saturday with taking bribes, the Hurriyet newspaper said. Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab was meanwhile charged with forming a ring that bribed officials to disguise illegal gold sales to Iran via Halkbank, Hurriyet said.
Police seized $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes in Aslan’s home, local media reported last week. The sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler, Baris Guler, and of Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Kaan Caglayan, were also charged with acting as intermediaries in order to give and take bribes, the Hurriyet newspaper reported without elaborating.
Erdogan says the mass detentions are part of a conspiracy targeting his government, which has swept three successive elections in a row since 2002 benting on a strong growth, which exceeded 8.0 percent in 2010 and 2011.
The Turkish premier on Saturday defended Halkbank which he claimed was targeted by international plotters.
“We have raised the bank’s market value to $25 billion. They are targeting this successful state bank,” he told AKP supporters. “This bank is intimidating Turkey’s enemies.”
Halkbank has come under fire from some quarters in the United States for alleged illegal transactions to Iran. The bank has denied the claims.
Ricciardone was quoted as telling EU ambassadors that Washington had issued a warning to Halkbank.
“We asked Halkbank to cut its links with Iran. They did not listen to us. You are watching the collapse of an empire,” he was quoted as saying by the Aksam, Bugun, Yeni Safak and Star newspapers.
“I am not aware of any such meeting,” an EU diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Ricciardone denied the media reports as “baseless” on his Turkish-language Twitter account.
“Nobody should put US-Turkish relations into jeopardy through baseless allegations,” he said.
“The United States has nothing to do with the ongoing corruption investigation.”
Ricciardone has had an uneasy relationship with the AKP government since his appointment in January 2011.
Erdogan called him a “rookie” after Ricciardone raised the issue of jailed journalists in Turkey.
In February, the government warned him to stop meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs after he criticised “flaws” in the justice system, highlighting “lengthy pre-trial detentions, lack of clarity in presenting charges, lack of transparency”.