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Turkey’s CHP presidential candidate warns to shut key US base unless Gulen extradited

This handout picture taken and released on May 14, 2018 by the Republican People's Party Press Office shows presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, delivering a speech during an election campaign rally, in Eregli district of Konya city, Turkey. (Via AFP)

Turkey’s presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, has threatened to close a major American military base in the country by Christmas unless Washington extradites US-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for an abortive 2016 coup.

Ince sent out the warning to the White House about shutting down the base at Incirlik, a military airport located in southern Turkey, in an interview with Turkey’s Fox TV late on Wednesday, saying Washington must “extradite Fethullah Gulen from the United States.”

“If you (the United States) don't hand him back, we will shut down Incirlik and send back US soldiers on December 24 and they can celebrate Christmas with their families,” Ince added, a 54-year-old former physics teacher from the northwestern province of Yalova.

Shortly after the mid-July 2016 coup attempt against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by a faction of the army, Ankara accused 76-year-old Gulen of being the mastermind and orchestrator of the botched putsch, sending several official requests to Washington to hand over the elderly cleric, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999.

Washington, however, has so far declined Ankara’s requests, saying it needs compelling evidence of Gulen’s alleged role in the failed coup to hand him over to the Anatolian country. In response, Ankara has on several occasions threatened that it would revisit its ties with the US if Washington failed to extradite Gulen.

For his part, Gulen has already strongly rejected the charge of having a role in the attempted coup and condemned the putsch, calling on Ankara to end its “witch hunt” of his followers, a move he says is aimed at “weeding out anyone it deems disloyal to President Erdogan and his regime.”

The American base at Incirlik, which reportedly houses a stockpile of dozens of US tactical nuclear weapons, was raided by Turkish authorities after being used by rebel officers during the short-lived coup attempt.

Ince, Known for his fiery and impassioned rhetoric, was unanimously presented by the CHP earlier this month to challenge the incumbent president in the country’s June presidential elections.

However, Ince will have a an uphill struggle to convince voters as he is racing, in a gloves-off approach, against the veteran Erdogan, who has been in power either as prime minister or president since 2003, raising the prospect of a potential bruising political campaign.

The CHP candidate’s comments, however, took some observers by surprise as the secular opposition party has generally been perceived to be more pro-US than Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

A victory for Erdogan would mean extended powers for him based on amendments to Turkey’s constitution approved by voters in a controversial referendum last year. In an unexpected move last month, the Turkish president called the elections more than a year earlier than scheduled, saying his administration was facing numerous legal problems, including economic challenges and the war in Syria, which could be solved only with a more powerful presidency.

Rights campaigners and international organizations have already voiced doubts about the legitimacy of the elections which would come under a renewed state of emergency in Turkey.

The state of emergency has been in place since the failed coup, allowing the government to jail or dismiss more than 200,000 people over suspected links to purported coup plotters.

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