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Turkey Generals Warn Politicians

Turkey's powerful generals issued a pointed warning to squabbling politicians on Monday that they should avoid comments that could draw the army into politics.

The warning, from the strongly secularist General Staff, appeared directed at the Islamist Virtue Party. But it reflected broader worries over uncertainty that has followed the collapse of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's resignation last week.

The General Staff, which has an established role as "guardian" of the secularist order, urged political leaders in a statement to "show the necessary care and sensitivity" in negotiations to form a new government.

"We consider it beneficial that anyone with responsibility should inform the public in the correct way and should avoid statements which could draw the armed forces into politics," the statement, reported by the state-owned Anatolian agency, said.

"It is out of the question to say the Turkish Armed Forces likes one party over another."

The comments followed reported comments by Recai Kutan, head of the Islamist Virtue Party.

The Milliyet daily quoted Kutan on Saturday as saying:

"I have higher chances than Yilmaz to form the new government... I have no worries about the military. We are seeing signs that the military likes the policies of our party."

According to convention, Kutan, as head of the largest party in parliament, should be given the first opportunity to form a new government. The General Staff statement could be interpreted by secularist parties as a caution against offering concessions to Virtue for tacit or active backing in breaking deadlock.

Even mainstream secularist leaders like Yilmaz of the Motherland Party and former premier Tansu Ciller of the rival True Path would be ill advised to publicly claim the favor of the military. Such a boast from the head of an Islamist party might seem close to foolhardy.

Turkey's powerful armed forces have a history of involvement in politics, launching three military coups between 1960 and 1980. Pressure from the generals led to the downfall of the country's first Islamist-led government in June last year.

Since then, the Welfare Party which headed that cabinet has been banned and officials of the successor Virtue Party have been prosecuted on charges of violating the secularist constitution.

The military, which initiated and pressed the judicial campaign, would be wary of any attempt by secularist parties to "buy" Virtue support with promises of aborting prosecutions.

The General Staff, invoking secular state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, made clear it would not tolerate any flirtation with political Islam.

"The Turkish armed forces...have shown by consistent behavior and attitudes that they value all contemporary views which comply with Ataturk's principles and reforms which are in line with the basic principles of the constitution"

The National Security Council, which groups the civilian and political leadership of the country, met on Monday afternoon. The secretive body was expected to discuss efforts to form a government as well as Turkey's dispute with Italy over the fate of Kurdish separatist guerrilla Abdullah Ocalan.

Newspapers quoted President Suleyman Demirel, who must appoint someone to form a new government, as suggesting polls brought forward to April should be put back again to 2000 and a broad-based reforming government assembled.

Columnist Gungor Mengi said in the Sabah daily parliament should press the idea to prevent formation of a power vacuum.

"Party leaders are skeptical about the suggestions... 'Are the military behind all this?' they wonder. Obviously some will take the suggestions seriously if the military are behind them.

"Turkey has been forced to solve its accumulated problems by periodic coups and each time the military rulers made matters worse," he said. Parliament must act on its responsibility.

Yilmaz was brought down in a no-confidence vote last week after losing a coalition partner's support because of a corrpution scandal. The scandal suggested government links with organized crime in a state-owned bank privatization. Yilmaz has denied the charges.

Simmering in the background of the current political crisis is a diplomatic row with Italy over the fate of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is being held by Rome after trying to enter the country under a false name.

Turkey accuses Ocalan of responsibility for thousands of civilian deaths and wants him to be extradited to Ankara to face trial. Italy, seen by many as sympathetic to Kurds, has so far refused Turkey's demands, citing laws that preclude extradition to countries with a death penalty.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters contributed to this report