ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A corruption scandal that has rocked Turkey's government appeared to have expanded to a new front as police detained some 25 people in the city of Izmir for questioning over a new bribery and fraud investigation and the government hit back by removing high-ranking police from their posts in the city.
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. But he has denounced the police investigation as a conspiracy to hurt his government ahead of local elections in March and vowed to hit back.
The government has pointed fingers at the followers of an Islamic movement led by the 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 reassigned or demoted since the initial police probe began Dec. 17. Analysts have said the government is purging officers linked to the Gulen movement.
The wave of dismissals was criticized by the European Union which on Wednesday indicated that 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."
The police chief of Izmir was among 16 senior police officials reassigned to new posts on 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 transferred to another job after the police operation, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. The Dogan news agency said as many as three deputy chiefs in Izmir were dismissed.
Huseyin Celik, a legislator and spokesman for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, suggested Wednesday that the target of the new police probe was Binali Yildirim, a close Erdogan confident and a former government minister, who stepped down last month to run for mayor of Izmir in March local elections.
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 and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party said Erdogan would account for the scandal "before judges in court."
Kilicdaroglu referred to newspaper reports that Turkey's intelligence agency had warned Erdogan back in April about some government ministers' relation to an Azeri-Iranian businessman who has been arrested on bribery charges as part of in the initial corruption investigation.
Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of not acting on the intelligence, saying "he gave the orders, he is the gang leader."