Armyu stresses its resolve to press secularist agenda despite PM's resignation


TURKEY's staunchly secularist military said yesterday it would press ahead with its anti-Islamist campaign despite the resignation of the Islamist Prime Minister, Mr Necmettin Erbakan.

"The mission of the Turkish armed forces of protecting the Turkish republic's unity against the threat of fundamentalism is still valid and continuing," a senior military official said. "It must not be linked with the recent political developments."

Mr Erbakan handed his resignation to President Suleyman Demirel on Wednesday after a fierce dispute between the ruling Islamists and the powerful army over rising religious sentiment in public life.

The row erupted publicly in February when an army-dominated council demanded a government crackdown on an Islamic upsurge, including tighter implementation of Islamic dress restrictions, the closure of unofficial Islamic education courses and efforts to limit the role of religious schools.

The generals, who see themselves as the guardians of Turkey's 73-year official secularism, called in a media briefing last week on all citizens to fight the danger of Muslim activism.

They accused Mr Erbakan of threatening the secular order by promoting Islamic groups, among which they said were militant elements. "The opinions conveyed in the briefing are still valid " the army official said.

Mr Demirel yesterday began to meet party leaders to replace Mr Erbakan's government, which fell a year after it was set up.

Mr Erbakan, his secularist coalition partner, Ms Tansu Ciller, and a far-right leader proposed a plan to Mr Demirel on Wednesday to form a caretaker coalition to take the country to early elections.

Mr Demirel met the main opposition leader, Mr Mesut Yilmaz, one of the main contenders to fill the prime minister's seat, for an hour of talks at the presidential palace.

"I told him I was ready to lake on the responsibility," Mr Yilmaz, head of the conservative Motherland Party, told reporters after the meeting.

The president was to meet other opposition figures later in the day before nominating a leader who would try to forge a new coalition government from the splintered parliament.

Mr Yilmaz's conservative rival, Ms Ciller, has also been tipped as likely to gel the nod from the President but there are no certainties.

Shares in Istanbul were up more than 3 per cent on hopes that Mr Erbakan's resignation on Wednesday would end months of political turmoil that has dogged the markets and hampered government efforts to balance the budget.

Mr Erbakan stepped down after persistent accusations that he was trying to slowly dissolve the official secularist system in Turkey, a NATO member, and create an Islamic stale similar to that of Iran.

"Turkey needs a government that can protect the system and make it flourish," said Mr Yilmaz, a former prime minister.

The opposition leader, who has 129 MPs in the 550-seat parliament, could struggle to find coalition allies if Mr Demirel named him as prime minister designate

Ms Ciller said her opponents in the scramble for the top job did not have the support to win a confidence vote in parliament.

"They have not established a majority and it is not clear who would be their prime minister" the Foreign Minister, Ms Ciller told a news conference.

She has the backing of Mr Erbakan's Islamists for a plan to head a caretaker administration and take Turkey to early polls.

A revamped alliance headed by Ms Ciller would command the support on paper of 282 MPs in the 550-member assembly.

Mr Demirel has the power to appoint his own caretaker administration and call elections himself if his appointee fails to come up with a feasible government formula in 45 days.