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World & Nation

In Ankara, a night of fear as battling Turkish jets screamed through the skies

Helicopter bombardments during an attempted military coup left Turkey’s parliament heavily damaged.
Helicopter bombardments during an attempted military coup left Turkey’s parliament heavily damaged.
(Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press)

It is dawn and the streets of Ankara’s Kizilay district are empty, strewn with rubbish and glass. A man casts a solitary figure, sweeping shards into piles after a night of bracing violence. Little else moves.

On Ankara’s main boulevard, mangled cars sit at intervals. Some trees have been uprooted and shattered by the force of the previous night’s brutality.

There is the vague howl of a jet high above. Gunfire occasionally rattles.

Only a few hours earlier, fighter jets were screaming at supersonic speeds through Ankara’s skies in aerial dogfights that shook the city with sonic booms. Police and dissident soldiers were locked in gunfights around key state institutions.

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But by morning, an eerie quiet hung over this city of 4.6 million people. The normally bustling streets in Kizilay slowly came back to life, people returning to its broad boulevards dotted with cafes and bars.

More than 160 people were killed overnight, many of them civilians, according to the semi-state Anadolu Agency, in a bloody conflict of a magnitude not seen during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 14 years of rule.

Military dissidents, staging the country’s first coup in 19 years, repeatedly fired on crowds of protesters. Helicopter gunships carved through the skies. Warplanes launched airstrikes on the parliament and areas around Erdogan’s presidential palace.

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The dissidents, primarily drawn from the ranks of the air and land forces, said they were seeking to reverse an erosion of Turkey’s secular institutions under the Erdogan government’s increasingly Islamist and authoritarian rule.

In a country beset by crises, the overnight violence shook the country to its core.

“I’m a total wreck,” said one Kizilay resident, who asked not to be named. “I’m really afraid to go outside.”

Many hundreds of Erdogan’s party faithful gathered in Ankara’s Milli Egemenlik Park on Saturday, with Turkish flags draped across their shoulders. They set up booming chants cried by Ottoman armies of an epoch past: “We resign ourselves to the Greatest God.”

One man sat in a ruined van, now draped in Turkish flags, dabbing his eyes with a tissue and listening to a senior police official announce the restoration of democracy.

I’m really afraid to go outside.
A Kizilay resident

The same streets had erupted in chaos overnight. Gunfire boomed, much of it high-caliber. Explosions shook buildings, shattering windows and sending demonstrators scurrying in a stampede.

A man hastened from an apartment block carrying an infant and clutching a young girl’s hand. They rounded a corner, onto a calmer street, and disappeared into the night.

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Video shared on social media showed government supporters facing off with tanks, in most cases, unarmed men confronting machine gun-toting soldiers. Some footage depicted mobs beating soldiers bloody.

The aerial dogfights started when rebels “hijacked” six U.S.-supplied F-16s from a base at Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, according to presidential spokesman Dogan Eskinat. As the planes raced over Ankara and Istanbul early Saturday at low altitudes, the government deployed two F-16s to chase them from the skies.

The rebel planes headed to a different airbase, Malatya in southern Turkey. There, local citizens stormed the airport and occupied the tarmac to prevent any other hijacked planes from taking off, Eskinat said.

In Istanbul, Mustafa Zia found himself face to face shortly before midnight Friday with a policeman toting a machine gun. A supporter of the government, Zia was unsure whether he and the officer were on the same side.

Heeding Erdogan’s call, Zia was joining thousands of other citizens trying to confront soldiers and tanks that had taken over the Bosphorus Bridge, a major route connecting Istanbul’s Asian and European sides. 

“I wanted to go past him, to get to the bridge,” he said. “I yelled at him, I had lost my mind by then, I just remember yelling, ‘Who are you working for?’ ”

Zia drove as close as he could to the foot of the bridge, then started walking until the police officer stopped him, telling him to turn around.  Zia turned around, then came back a few minutes later to find the police officer gone. 

By then, the crowd was surrounding three tanks that were trying to make their way onto the bridge. 

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“People climbed onto the first tank and took the weapons from the soldiers, but then the soldiers on the other tanks started shooting at us with machine guns. One man was shot and he fell, and we moved him into a car that took him to get help,” Zia said.

The tanks made their way up the bridge, apparently to join other units participating in the coup. Zia and the protesters chased after them, only to fall back as they were met by gunfire — some aimed into the air and some directed at them.

“Some bus drivers who had left their buses had helped us. They parked the buses so we could use them as a shield,” Zia said. “It was beautiful. There were women; there were families. Everyone came out to stop this coup.”

For the next three hours, Zia and thousands of government supporters sheltered behind the buses, as jets and helicopters flew overhead.

There was firing all night between the police and soldiers.
Mustafa Zia

“There was firing all night between the police and soldiers. It was not continuous, but came every few minutes and lasted for a short time,” Zia said. 

As morning approached, the number of lightly armed police among the protesters was reinforced by elite officers, armed with heavy machine guns and anchored around armored trucks. 

They moved beyond the line of buses Zia was using as a shield and were met by fire from the soldiers. “I saw one tank fire on an armored car. There were police inside. The whole thing was destroyed,” Zia said.

By daybreak, the police and protesters moved beyond the shield of buses they had used for the night and onto the bridge. “The soldiers and the police started firing at each other. There were people being shot down,” Zia said.

Eventually, the soldiers on the bridge gave up and laid their weapons down as police and government supporters rushed to subdue them. 

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“People starting celebrating. They climbed onto the tanks. They took pictures with them,” Zia said. The government supporters chanted, “God is great!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Re-cep Erdo-gan!”

Most of the scores of dissident soldiers involved in the coup attempt were arrested on live television, walking away with hands behind their backs one at a time, escorted by police officers. 

Behind them, the surface of the bridge was a mess of bodies, military helmets and surrendered weapons.

For the most part, it was over.

By Saturday afternoon in Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood, mosques were announcing the funerals of the “martyred” every half-hour or so. They were calling the faithful to special congregational prayers “to obtain God’s assistance in a time of need.”

Special correspondent Johnson reported from Ankara and Farooq from Istanbul. Special correspondent Roy Gutman contributed from Istanbul.

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UPDATES:

2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with reporting on military aircraft operations during the coup attempt.

This article was originally published at 12:05 p.m.


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