ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A corruption scandal that has rocked Turkey's government expanded Wednesday as police detained two dozen people in Izmir for questioning in a new bribery and fraud investigation and the government hit back by removing high-ranking police in that city from their posts.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government was forced to dismiss three ministers from his Cabinet last month after their sons were implicated in a massive corruption scandal linked to alleged illicit money transfers to Iran and bribery for construction projects. Erdogan, however, has denounced the police investigation as a conspiracy to hurt his government ahead of local elections in March and has vowed to fight back.
The government has pointed fingers at followers of an Islamic movement led by an influential U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan has accused Gulen's followers of infiltrating Turkey's police and judiciary and of attacking the government with corruption probes.
Hundreds of police officers have been demoted or reassigned since the initial police probe began Dec. 17. Analysts say the government is purging police officers linked to the Gulen movement. The European Union on Wednesday criticized the wave of police firings, saying the issue would become a problem for Turkey in its bid to join the 28-member group.
"The removal of a large number of police officers from their posts ... is a matter of concern," said EU spokesman Peter Stano. "We urge Turkey ... to take all the necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner."
Corruption scandal rhetoric heated up on Wednesday, when a prosecutor who initiated the corruption probe claimed he had been threatened by two people sent by Erdogan who warned him to cease the investigation. The prime minister's office rejected the claim as slander.
Zekeriya Oz, the former deputy chief prosecutor for Istanbul, said the two judiciary officials warned the he would "come to harm" unless he apologized to the prime minister and stopped the probe. Oz oversaw the corruption probe until a legal body transferred him to another position this week.
The police chief of Izmir was among 16 senior police officials reassigned to new posts Wednesday, a day after police in the city launched raids detaining 25 people as part of an investigation into alleged fraud and bribery linked to the city's port operators. The deputy police chief in charge of Izmir's harbor was also transferred to another job, the state-run Anadolu reported. The Dogan news agency said as many as three deputy police chiefs in Izmir were dismissed.
Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan's ruling party, suggested Wednesday that the target of the new police probe was Binali Yildirim, a close Erdogan confident and former minister who stepped down last month to run for mayor of Izmir in the March election. Dogan said police in Izmir wanted to question a dozen other people, including Yildirim's brother-in-law.
The opposition has criticized the police dismissals as a government attempt to cover up the scandal. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, said Erdogan would account for the scandal "before judges in court." He was referring to newspaper reports that Turkey's intelligence agency had warned Erdogan back in April that some ministers had ties to an Azeri-Iranian businessman who has been arrested on bribery charges.