ISTANBUL — Turkey was plunged into chaos on Friday after elements of the military launched a coup, tanks deployed in major cities and people swarmed onto the streets in a show of support for the elected government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Branches of the police and army fought pitched battles for control of government buildings in the streets of the capital, Ankara, and protesters confronted tanks in Istanbul as Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally, spun out of control.
Turkish airspace was closed and international flights were suspended as the coup plotters flew around in helicopters firing on government buildings. At least 42 people were killed in the violence in Ankara, including a lawmaker who died when the parliament was bombed by a helicopter, Turkish officials said.
Gruesome video footage posted on social media showed tanks crushing protesters who tried to block their path, bloodied bodies strewn on the streets of Ankara and helicopters firing missiles into civilian crowds, raising fears that the toll could be higher.
Early Saturday morning, Turkish officials said the government had managed to wrest back control from the coup plotters, whose identity remained unclear. A Turkish warplane shot down a helicopter carrying some of the coup leaders, the officials said, and the state broadcaster, which had been off air for several hours after it was overrun by members of the military, was back on air.
Erdogan, who had been visiting the coastal resort of Marmaris when the coup was launched, later flew to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, officials said. He emerged from the facility, which had been briefly overrun, to greet the thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters who had descended on the airport to eject the coup participants.
“A minority group within the armed forces targeted the integrity of our country,” Erdogan told reporters at a news conference broadcast live on state television. “This latest action is an action of treason, and they will have to pay heavily for that. This is a government that has been elected by the people.”
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim issued orders early Saturday to the military aircraft pilots still loyal to the government to take to the skies to shoot down any remaining planes flying on behalf of the coup plotters, who appeared to include a sizeable proportion of the air force.
“The situation is largely in control,” Yildirim told Turkey’s NTV television channel. “All commanders are in charge. The people have taken steps to address this threat.”
“We expect the situation to end by the morning,” added a senior Turkish official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive information.
But with reports that gunfire and explosions were still being heard on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara well into the morning, it was far from clear whether the worst crisis in Turkey in decades had been resolved.
Soldiers subsequently overran the offices of several major media organizations, including CNN’s Turkish service, which went off the air.
The unrest raised fears that Turkey could be destined for a prolonged period of civil strife that would reverberate across an already bloodstained and chaotic region. The splits within the security forces and the chaotic scenes on the streets revealed a society deeply polarized between supporters and opponents of the deeply controversial Erdogan, whose autocratic behavior has alienated some segments of Turkish society but who remains hugely popular among his core constituents.
With the main opposition parties making statements condemning the coup attempt, and most of the important branches of the military and security services rallying to the government side, it did not appear that the renegades had widespread support.
The upheaval began Friday evening when tanks and other armored vehicles appeared on bridges across the Bosporous in Istanbul and F-16s began streaking through the skies.
Shortly afterward, an anchor with the state television broadcaster read a statement purportedly from the Turkish military saying it had taken control of the country, citing concerns about the increasingly autocratic behavior of Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“The Turkish Armed Forces, in accordance with the constitution, have seized management of the country to reinstate democracy, human rights, and freedom, and to ensure public order, which has deteriorated,” the statement said.
Erdogan, whose party won a comfortable majority in elections last year, then appealed to his supporters to take to the streets to protest the coup. He spoke to the nation using the FaceTime app on the phone of a Turkish TV anchor.
Many thousands responded, with protesters gathering in venues including Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and outside Erdogan’s palace in Ankara. Mobile phone videos uploaded to social media sites showed scenes in which people scrambled over tanks to try to block their path and soldiers opening fire on some of the crowds.
Turkish officials blamed the coup attempt on a small group of disgruntled military officers loyal to the movement of a U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who maintains a network of adherents across Turkey and has long challenged Erdogan’s hold on power. The officers were destined to lose their jobs in August during a military reshuffle, said the Turkish official.
The Gulenist movement denied involvement, however, and amid the confusion, it was impossible to confirm who was behind the attempt to topple the government.
Erdogan has made many enemies in the 13 years he has run Turkey, first as prime minister and then, since 2014, as president, including within the military. Hundreds of officers have been imprisoned by his government, some of them accused of coup-plotting, and it had been widely thought that his crackdown on dissent had dispelled the risk of coups in the once coup-prone country.
These latest coup plotters included members of the air force and gendarmerie, and at least 130 have been arrested, according to the Turkish official. Among them were 13 officers who tried to force their way into the presidential palace, the official said.
Sly reported from Irbil, Iraq. Ishaan Tharoor in Washington, Carol Morello in Moscow and Menekse Tokyay in Ankara contributed to this report.