ISTANBUL - Shortly after 3:15 A.M. on Saturday, when the executive jet bringing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan back from his vacation in Dalaman landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, all the planes and ground cars at the airport were ordered to immediately turn off their transponders.
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These devices, which allow radar to detect a plane’s exact location and identity, could have enabled fighter jets controlled by officers involved in the weekend’s failed coup to launch missiles at Erdogan’s plane.
On Sunday, Reuters reported that during the flight from Dalaman, military F-16s had indeed locked their radar on Erdogan’s plane, which was escorted by other fighter jets commanded by his loyalists. But for reasons unknown, they never opened fire.
In the two days since the failed coup, numerous reports have confirmed how involved certain air force officers and units were in planning and executing it. One of the most senior officers arrested so far, who is suspected of commanding the coup, is former air force commander Gen. Akin Ozturk, who also once served as Turkey’s military attaché in Israel.
Aside from trying to intercept Erdogan’s plane, F-16s controlled by the plotters also flew low over both Istanbul and Ankara, the capital, and dropped at least one bomb on Parliament. According to some reports, they also bombed Erdogan’s vacation home shortly after he left it. They were apparently assisted by two KC-135 midair refuelers, which were spotted on radar hovering over central Turkey on Friday night.
On Sunday morning, the commander of the Incirlik Airbase, Gen. Bakir Ercan Van, was arrested. Based on photos of the arrest, others arrested with him included two officers dressed in the flight suits of Squadron 101, which operates the base’s midair refuelers.
Assault helicopters also apparently participated in the coup. One Blackhawk helicopter was reportedly downed by a loyalist fighter jet, while another Blackhawk fled to Greece, where its crew requested asylum. Several other assault helicopters, apparently Cobras, were filmed firing at civilian targets in downtown Ankara.
Arrests were also carried out at the Konya Airbase, where, according to some reports, runways were bombed to prevent fighter jets controlled by the plotters from taking off.
The involvement in the coup at Incirlik, which is just 60 kilometers from the Syrian border, is particularly sensitive because aside from serving Turkey’s air force, it is also a major NATO base that currently hosts dozens of planes and about 5,000 soldiers from the U.S. Air Force.
Many reports say dozens of American nuclear warheads are stored at Incirlik. And in recent months, dozens of fighter planes and drones have left from Incirlik every day as part of the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
For about a day and a half, the Turkish government cut off power to the base – including the areas where the Americans are – and wouldn’t let any planes take off or land. The official reason was to facilitate the arrest of coup participants.