ISTANBUL (AP) - Waving large red Turkish flags, tens of thousands joined a national unity march in Istanbul on Saturday, converging at the iconic July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge to mark the anniversary of the failed military coup attempt that 250 people died resisting.
As part of the commemoration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Istanbul on Saturday and was photographed waving at a fighter jet escorting his aircraft. Accompanied by his grandchildren wearing shirts with Turkish flags and relatives of the deceased, Erdogan then joined the crowd on the bridge where he was to unveil a Martyrs’ Memorial to honor those who died opposing the coup.
“It has been exactly one year since Turkey’s darkest and longest night was transformed into a bright day, since an enemy occupation turned into the people’s legend,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said earlier in the day at a special parliamentary session in Ankara, the capital, attended by Erdogan.
The massive crowd, waving flags on the bridge and the highway connecting to it, was filmed with drones. Photographs of the “martyrs” were displayed on monitors on the bridge and their names were also announced. Marches will also be taking place in Ankara.
Turkish soldiers attempted to overthrow the government and the president using tanks, warplanes and helicopters on July 15, 2016. The coup plotters declared their seizure of power on the state broadcaster, bombed the country’s parliament and other key locations, and raided an Aegean resort where Erdogan had been on vacation. But Erdogan had already left and the coup attempt was put down by civilians and security forces.
The Bosporus Bridge, now called the July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge, was the scene of clashes between civilians and soldiers in tanks. Some 250 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured across Turkey in the struggle. Thirty-five coup plotters were also killed.
Yildirim thanked the thousands who heeded a call by Erdogan to flood the streets to resist the coup.
“We are able to come together again here today because of our 250 heroic martyrs, 2,193 heroic veterans and the great Turkish people. Your country is grateful to you,” Yildirim said.
In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Turkey declared a state of emergency that has been in place ever since, which has allowed the government to rule by decree and to dismiss tens of thousands of people from their jobs. More than 50,000 people have also been arrested for alleged links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for orchestrating the failed coup, and other terror groups.
Gulen has denied the allegations.
In the latest government decree published Friday evening, 7,395 more state employees were fired, including teachers, academics, military and police officers, bringing the number of dismissed to more than 110,000. The government calls the crackdown necessary to purge state institutions of those linked to Gulen, but critics say the dismissals are arbitrary and the victims’ paths to recourse severely curtailed.
The U.S. State Department on Saturday issued a statement praising the bravery of the Turkish people who took to the streets to “preserve the rights and freedoms of their democratic society.”
“The preservation of democracy requires perseverance, tolerance, dissent and safeguards for fundamental freedoms,” the agency said, warning that curbs on those key freedoms erode “the foundations of democratic society.”
“More voices, not fewer, are necessary in challenging times,” the statement said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg paid homage to those who lost lives resisting the coup and said attempts to undermine democracy in any one of the allied nations was “unacceptable.”
July 15 has been declared a national holiday in Turkey.
Public transportation in Istanbul and Ankara is free over the weekend and bus destination signs displayed messages of congratulations.