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May 21, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party on Sunday kicked off a congress to re-elect President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as its chairman after last month’s referendum. Erdogan will return to lead the party he co-founded after Sunday’s extraordinary congress in Ankara, since last month’s referendum removed a constitutional requirement that presidents be neutral and cut ties with their political parties.

Erdogan welcomed the tens of thousands of people outside the arena. “My dear fellow travelers … we were separated but today we are together once again,” he said. Erdogan and the AKP won a narrow victory on the April 16 referendum that will transform Turkey’s parliamentary governing system to an executive presidency.

Critics said the vote, which took place under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of last year’s failed coup, was marred by allegations of election fraud. Most of the constitutional changes won’t take effect until after the next presidential and parliamentary elections, slated for Nov. 3, 2019.

Three amendments, however, have automatically come into effect, including one that allows Erdogan to return to his party. Others are the repeal of military courts and a restructuring of Turkey’s board of judges and prosecutors.

Erdogan was forced to cut his formal ties to the AKP when he became the country’s first directly elected president in 2014 — but he still rallied for the party anyway. AKP officials and supporters from across the country were at the congress, waving flags to songs about Erdogan and the AKP. Banners read “the leader of change, the nation’s leader.”

The congress will last all day, with speeches by the current party chairman, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Erdogan, to be followed with the voting.

May 10, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey slammed the Trump administration’s decision to supply Syrian Kurdish fighters with weapons against the Islamic State group and demanded Wednesday that it be reversed, heightening tensions between the NATO allies days before the Turkish leader heads to Washington for a meeting with President Donald Trump.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the fight against terrorism “should not be led with another terror organization” — a reference to the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, which Turkey considers an extension of the decades-long Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast. “We want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations,” he said.

The dispute could ignite more fighting between the two key U.S. allies in the battle against IS as Syrian Kurdish forces gear up for a major operation to drive the militants from their de facto capital, Raqqa.

Turkey, which has sent troops to northern Syrian in an effort to curtail Kurdish expansion along its borders, has for months tried to lobby Washington to cut off ties with the Kurds and work instead with Turkish-backed opposition fighters in the fight for Raqqa.

But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, of SDF, which has driven IS from much of northern Syria over the past two years with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, are among the most effective ground forces battling the extremists. In announcing the decision on Tuesday to arm the Kurds, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, Dana W. White, called the militia “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

On Wednesday, the SDF said it captured the country’s largest dam from the Islamic State group. The fighters, which are Kurdish-led but also include some Arab fighters, said they expelled the extremists from the Tabqa Dam and a nearby town, also called Tabqa.

It was the latest IS stronghold to fall to the Kurdish-led fighters as they advance toward Raqqa — the seat of the militants’ so-called caliphate along the Euphrates River. The fall of Tabqa leaves no other major urban settlements on the road to Raqqa, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.

Ilham Ahmed, a top official in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ political office, hailed the U.S. decision to provide heavier arms, saying it carries “political meaning” and would “legitimize” the Kurdish-led force.

Ankara says the Kurdish militia, which forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-old insurgency in Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and other Western countries.

Erdogan said he would take up the issue during a planned meeting with Trump on Tuesday. “I hope that they will turn away from this wrong,” he said. Earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also denounced the U.S. move, saying “every weapon that reaches the (Kurds’) hands is a threat to Turkey.”

The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against IS, Col. John Dorrian, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that the weapons would be delivered to the Kurds soon. The weapons will not be reclaimed by the U.S. after specific missions are completed, he added, speaking by teleconference from Baghdad, but the U.S. will “carefully monitor” where and how they are used.

“Every single one” of the weapons will be accounted for, and the U.S. will “assure they are pointed at ISIS,” Dorrian said, using an alternate acronym for IS. The Trump administration has not specified the kinds of arms to be provided, but U.S. officials have indicated that 120mm mortars, machine guns, ammunition and light armored vehicles were possibilities. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter, said artillery or surface-to-air missiles would not be provided.

Speaking in Lithuania, where he was touring a NATO training site on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that the U.S. has had very open discussions with Turkey over its concerns.

“We will work together. We’ll work out any of the concerns. I’m not concerned at all about the NATO alliance and the relations between our nations,” he said. “It’s not always tidy, but we work out the issues,” he added.

The SDF’s rapid advance against IS last year prompted Turkey to send ground forces across the border for the first time in the more than 6-year-old Syrian civil war to help allied Syrian forces battle IS and halt the Kurds’ progress.

Since then, Turkey is believed to have positioned more than 5,000 troops in northern Syria, and has escalated its airstrikes and cross-border artillery attacks against Kurdish forces. A Turkish air raid in late April killed 20 Syrian Kurdish fighters and media officials, prompting the U.S. to deploy armored vehicles along the border in a show of support for the group.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Lolita C. Baldor in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Bob Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Tensions rose Saturday along the Turkish-Syrian border as both Turkey and the U.S. moved armored vehicles to the region and Turkey’s leader once again demanded that the United States stop supporting the Syrian Kurdish militants there.

The relocation of Turkish troops to an area near the border with Syria comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. Those patrols followed a Turkish airstrike against bases of Syrian Kurdish militia, Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria.

More U.S. troops were seen Saturday in armored vehicles in Syria in Kurdish areas. Kurdish officials describe U.S. troop movement as “buffer” between them and Turkey. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores. The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat its attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

On Saturday, more U.S. troops in armored vehicles arrived in Kurdish areas, passing through Qamishli town, close to the border with Turkey. The town is mostly controlled by Kurdish forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport.

The convoy was followed by another of YPG militia. Some footage posted online showed Kurdish residents cheering American-flagged vehicles as they drove by. U.S. officials say the troop movement is part of its operations with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Claiming that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces were not building up in the area.

El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — In a move that social media users called censorship, a Turkish court on Saturday blocked access to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, enforcing an earlier restriction by Turkey’s telecommunications watchdog.

The Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) said an Ankara court ordered Saturday that a “protection measure” related to suspected internet crimes be applied to Wikipedia. Such measures are used to block access to pages or entire websites to protect “national security and public order.”

In response, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted his support for those who labeled the decision censorship: “Access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people I will always stand with you to fight for this right.”

Turkey Blocks, an internet censorship monitor, said users in Turkey have been unable to access all language editions of Wikipedia since 8 a.m. Saturday. “The loss of availability is consistent with internet filters used to censor content in the country,” the monitor said.

The site had initially been blocked by BTK under a provisional administration measure. The exact reason for the ban remains unclear. But Turkey’s official news agency, quoting the Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications, said Saturday the site was blocked for “becoming an information source acting with groups conducting a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena.”

The state-run Anadolu Agency said officials had warned Wikipedia to remove content likening Turkey to terror groups but the site “persistently” did not. Turkey had demanded that Wikipedia open an office in the country, act in line with international law and abide by court decisions and not be part of “blackout operation against Turkey,” according to the agency.

Anadolu said if these demands are met and the content removed, the site would be reopened. Opposition lawmakers also criticized the court order. Republican People’s Party parliamentarians Eren Erdem tweeted the ban puts “Turkey in line with North Korea” while Baris Yarkadas called it “censorship and a violation of the right to access information.”

Turkey’s status is listed as “not free” on the 2016 Freedom on the Net index by independent rights watchdog Freedom House. It says over 111,000 websites were blocked as of May last year. Wikipedia, a collaborative online reference work, says it is ranked among the 10 most popular websites.

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s leader on Saturday urged the United States to stop supporting Syrian Kurdish militants as local media reported the Turkish military has moved armored vehicles and personnel carriers to a base near the Syrian border.

The relocation comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish militia is Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base in the area is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Turkish officials announced the conclusion of the operation in March but have said they would continue combating terror to make its borders safe and rid of IS and Kurdish militants. Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores.

The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes between the two sides. The military said the YPG has targeted the Turkish border from Tal Abyad and further west in Afrin. Turkey’s military responded with howitzers.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat it attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Stating that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said his group has information that Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts. He said the purpose of the military reinforcement was not clear.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces are not building up in the area and added that the international coalition is now “monitoring” the border.

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

April 19, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s electoral board on Wednesday rejected petitions by opposition parties to annul the outcome of the weekend’s referendum on expanding presidential powers because of voting irregularities. The decision led protesters in Istanbul to call for the resignation of board members while the main opposition party said it would take the decision to Turkey’s top court.

The High Electoral Board announced in a written statement its decision by a 10-1 vote to reject three requests by the opposition. Mehmet Hadimi Yakupoglu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s representative at the board, said they would take the decision to the constitutional court and then to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. “We will demand the rights of the voters until the end,” he said.

Opposition parties have complained of a series of irregularities, particularly an electoral board decision to accept ballots without official stamps, as required by Turkish law. The board, however, published past rulings on the validity of unstamped ballots.

The Istanbul Bar Association on Wednesday filed a criminal complaint against electoral board head Sadi Guven for “wrongful conduct” and “altering the result of the election.” A prosecutor will now consider whether to press charges against Guven.

Before the electoral board’s announcement, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the opposition had the right to file objections, but warned that calling for street protests was unacceptable. He said that “the path to seek rights” should be limited to the courts.

“Calling people to the street is wrong and is outside the line of legitimacy,” Yildirim said, adding, “we expect the main opposition party’s leader to act more responsibly.” However, thousands continued to protest Sunday’s referendum, which has set into motion the transformation of Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one that would give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Some 2,000 protesters in Istanbul Wednesday evening demanded the resignation of the electoral board and chanted “Don’t be silent, shout out, ‘no’ to the presidency.” Earlier, 19 people were detained for allegedly using the results of a constitutional referendum as an “excuse” to organize “unauthorized demonstrations,” official Anadolu news agency reported.

Unofficial results show a narrow win for Erdogan’s “yes” campaign, which garnered 51.4 percent of the vote. International election monitors, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noted a series of irregularities, and said the decision to accept as valid ballots without official stamps undermined safeguards against fraud and was contrary to Turkish law.

Germany also expressed concern. “The German government takes the report by the OSCE and the Council of Europe very seriously, and we expect Turkey to do so,” government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters in Berlin. “We will follow closely how Turkey behaves on this. From the German government’s point of view, Turkey must … clear up the questions that have been raised.”

Erdogan has dismissed the criticism from the observers, telling the monitors to “know your place.” “That the Turkish leadership didn’t like the criticism by the OSCE’s election observer mission isn’t a surprise to anyone,” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said.

“What matters for us is not so much the first reaction from whomever in Turkey, directed more at domestic politics, but whether the responsible Turkish authorities really deal seriously with the criticism voiced publicly by the OSCE election observer mission, which was meant seriously and researched seriously.”

The U.S. response has been different, with President Donald Trump calling Erdogan shortly after the referendum to congratulate him on his win. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Erdogan and Trump would meet in person next month, before a NATO summit.

Geir Moulson in Berlin, Elena Becatoros in Istanbul and Mehmet Guzel in Ankara contributed to this report.

April 18, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally fulfilled his long-held ambition to expand his powers after Sunday’s referendum handed him the reins of his country’s governance. But success did not come without a cost.

His victory leaves the nation deeply divided and facing increasing tension with former allies abroad, while international monitors and opposition parties have reported numerous voting irregularities. An unofficial tally carried by the country’s state-run news agency gave Erdogan’s “yes” vote a narrow win, with 51.4 percent approving a series of constitutional changes converting Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. Critics argue the reforms will hand extensive power to a man with an increasingly autocratic bent, leaving few checks and balances in place.

Opposition parties called for the vote to be annulled because of a series of irregularities, particularly an electoral board decision to accept ballots that did not bear official stamps, as required by Turkish law. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who also listed numerous irregularities, said the move undermined safeguards against fraud.

The referendum campaign was heavily weighted in favor of the “yes” campaign, with Erdogan drawing on the full powers of the state and government to dominate the airwaves and billboards. The “no” campaign complained of intimidation, detentions and beatings.

In Istanbul, hundreds of “no” supporters demonstrated in the streets on Monday, chanting “thief, murderer, Erdogan” and banging pots and pans. “We are protesting today because the results announced by the government are not the real ones. Because actually the ‘no’ we voted won. But the government is announcing it as ‘yes’ has won,” Damla Atalay, a 35-year-old lawyer, said of the voting irregularities.

Erdogan was unfazed by the criticism as he spoke to flag-waving supporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara. “We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world,” he said as he arrived at the airport from Istanbul. “The crusader mentality attacked us abroad. … We did not succumb. As a nation, we stood strong.”

In a speech before a massive crowd at his sprawling presidential palace complex, Erdogan insisted Turkey’s referendum was “the most democratic election … ever seen in any Western country” and admonished the OSCE monitors to “know your place.”

The increasing polarization of Turkish society has long worried observers, who note the dangers of deepening societal divisions in a country with a history of political instability. The referendum was held with a state of emergency still in place, imposed after an attempted coup in July. About 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in the crackdown that followed on supporters of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally whom the president blamed for the attempted putsch. Tens of thousands have been arrested or imprisoned, including lawmakers, judges, journalists and businessmen.

The Council of Ministers decided Monday to extend the state of emergency, which grants greater powers of detention and arrest to security forces, for a further three months. It had been due to expire April 19. The decision was to be sent to parliament for approval.

“The way (Erdogan) has closed the door on the opposition, there is likely to be increased political unrest,” said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. “Forty-eight percent of the population is being told that their voices don’t matter.”

There is also the risk of increased international isolation, with Erdogan appealing to patriotic sentiments by casting himself as a champion of a proud Turkish nation that will not be dictated to by foreign powers in general, and the European Union in particular.

Turkey has been an EU candidate for decades, but its accession efforts have been all but moribund for several years. “They have made us wait at the gates of the European Union for 54 years,” Erdogan told his supporters at the presidential palace. “We can conduct a vote of confidence on this as well. Would we? What did England do — they did Brexit, right?”

“Either they will hold their promises to Turkey or they’ll have to bear the consequences,” he added. Erdogan has also vowed to consider reinstating the death penalty — a move that would all but end prospects of EU membership. But, he insisted, other nations’ opinions on the issue are irrelevant to him.

“Our concern is not what George or Hans or Helga says. Our concern is what Hatice, Ayse, Fatma, Ahmet, Mehmet, Hasan, Hüseyin says,” he thundered as the crowd of supporters chanted for the return of capital punishment. “What Allah says. That’s why our parliament will make this decision.”

Both Germany and France expressed concern about possible election irregularities and called on Erdogan to engage in dialogue with the opposition. “The narrow result of the vote shows how deeply split the Turkish society is,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a joint statement. “This implies a big responsibility for the Turkish government and President Erdogan personally.”

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, ignored the concerns about voting irregularities and congratulated Erdogan on his referendum victory. The two leaders also discussed Turkey’s support of the U.S. response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack and efforts to counter the Islamic State group, according to the White House statement on their phone call Monday.

The White House previously sidestepped questions about how the referendum was conducted, but the U.S. State Department had echoed the concerns raised by the OSCE, with spokesman Mark Toner pointing to “observed irregularities” on voting day and “an uneven playing field” during the campaign.

Such concerns are unlikely to move Erdogan. The referendum approves 18 constitutional amendments to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one. The president will be able to appoint ministers, senior government officials and to hold sway over who sits in Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency. They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents.

The new system takes effect at the next election, currently slated for 2019. Other changes are to be implemented sooner, including scrapping a requirement that the president not be a member of any political party. This would allow Erdogan to rejoin the governing AK Party he co-founded, or to lead it.

“Erdogan dominated the national media. He imposed a very restrictive environment for the ‘no’ camp,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “He secured a thin majority of 1 percent. This suggests that Erdogan will become more robust and more challenging to deal with.”

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Zeynep Bilginsoy and Bram Janssen in Istanbul contributed to this report.

April 18, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister on Tuesday called on the opposition to respect the result of a referendum that will give sweeping new powers to the office of the president, but the main opposition party formally requested to have the vote voided.

Sunday’s vote gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “yes” camp a narrow win for constitutional changes that will abolish the office of the prime minister and convert Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one.

The referendum took place under a state of emergency that was declared following a failed military coup last summer. Turkey’s parliament agreed Tuesday to extend for another three months the emergency powers allowing the government to rule by decree.

Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said the party filed a formal request seeking the referendum’s annulment due to voting irregularities. He said the party would use all legal paths to challenge the vote.

“We demand the cancellation of this referendum,” Tezcan said. The opposition has cited several problems with how the vote was conducted. But it has been particularly outraged by an electoral board decision, announced as the polls closed Sunday, to accept ballots that didn’t bear the official stamps used to verify they are genuine, as required by Turkish law.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who also listed numerous irregularities, said the board’s move undermined important election safeguards. The assessment drew a harsh rebuke from Erdogan and criticism from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

“Efforts to cast a shadow on the result of the vote by spreading rumors of fraud are futile and in vain,” Yildirim said. “The will of the people was freely reflected into the ballot boxes, and this business is over. Everyone and all sections — and the main opposition party in particular — must show respect. It is wrong to speak after the people have spoken.”

Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused the electoral board of bias and of favoring the governing party. “It is clear that the High Electoral Board is not receiving its power from the people, the law or the constitution, but rather from a specific center, a specific political authority,” Kilicdaroglu told his party’s lawmakers in Ankara Tuesday.

The board’s decision to accept ballots without official stamps was like “changing the rules midgame,” he said. Hundreds of people lined up outside election board offices in Ankara and Istanbul to submit petitions requesting the board reverse its pronouncement.

In Ankara, Fatma Korur, 46, said she was exercising her constitutional right to object to “illegal” results. Another petitioner, Fusun Cicekoglu, 61, said, “I will not accept my ‘no’ vote be voided and I will not accept ‘yes’ ballots cast illegally.”

The referendum allows Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey since he became prime minister in 2003 and then president in 2014, to fulfill his long-held ambition for a presidency with executive powers. The referendum approves 18 constitutional amendments that allow the president to appoint ministers, senior government officials and to hold sway over who sits on Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and to declare states of emergency.

The new system takes full effect at the next election, currently slated for November 2019. Other changes are to be implemented sooner, including scrapping a requirement that the president not be a member of any political party. This would allow Erdogan to rejoin the governing AKP he co-founded, or to lead it.

On Tuesday, Yildirim said Erdogan would be invited to join the party as soon as the official results are declared. “We will invite our founding chairman to our party and we will feel a huge elation to see him among us,” he said.

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were seen entering the High Electoral Board headquarters in Ankara. Tana de Zulueta, head of the observer mission, told reporters that the group had paid a courtesy call and held a “cordial” meeting with electoral board members.

Asked to comment on Erdogan’s rebuke, de Zulueta said: “I don’t have an opinion. We are invited by the Turkish authorities to observe. We share our report and we completed our mandate.” In Istanbul, thousands of “no” supporters continued their demonstrations Tuesday, carrying banners that said “Don’t give in” and chanting “Thief, Murderer, Erdogan!”

Protesters were fewer in number in Ankara, where they were outnumbered by police officers. “We are here today for the sake of Turkey, to live together, to take a stand for our votes,” protester Tezcan Karakus Candan said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, ignored the concerns about voting irregularities and congratulated Erdogan on his referendum victory. The two leaders also discussed Turkey’s support for the U.S. response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack and efforts to counter the Islamic State group, according to a White House summary of their phone call Monday.

Bilginsoy contributed from Istanbul and Mehmet Guzel contributed from Ankara.

April 16, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in Sunday’s referendum that will grant sweeping powers to the presidency, hailing the result as a “historic decision.” Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Erdogan said unofficial results showed the “yes” side had won by a margin of 1.3 million votes.

The president struck a conciliatory tone, thanking all voters regardless of how they cast their ballots and describing the referendum as a “historic decision.” “April 16 is the victory of all who said yes or no, of the whole 80 million, of the whole of Turkey of 780,000-square kilometers,” Erdogan said.

Returns carried by the state-run Anadolu news agency showed that with nearly 99 percent of the vote counted, the “yes” vote had about 51.3 percent compared to 48.7 percent for the “no” vote. Turkey’s main opposition party vowed to challenge the results reported by Anadolu agency, saying they were skewed.

Erdogan has long sought to broaden his powers, but a previous attempt failed after the governing party that he co-founded fell short of enough votes to pass the reforms without holding a referendum. Opponents argued the plan concentrate too much power in the hands of a man they allege has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies.

The outcome is expected to have a huge effect on Turkey’s long-term political future and its international relations. Although the result, if officially confirmed, would fall short of the sweeping victory Erdogan had sought, but nevertheless cements his hold on the country’s governance.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, whose position will be eliminated under the presidential system of government called for in the referendum, also welcomed the results and extended a hand to the opposition.

“We are all equal citizens of the Republic of Turkey,” he said. “Both the ones who said ‘no’ and the ones who said ‘yes’ are one and are equally valuable.” “There are no losers of this referendum. Turkey won, the beloved people won,” Yildirim said, adding that “a new page has opened in our democratic history with this vote. Be sure that we will use this result for our people’s welfare and peace in the best way.”

Erdogan supporters gathered outside the AK Party headquarters in Istanbul to celebrate, sending fireworks into the night sky. But the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, or CHP, cast doubt on the results. CHP vice chairman Erdal Aksunger said they would challenge 37 percent of the ballot boxes.

“Our data indicates a manipulation in the range of 3 to 4 percent,” the party said on its Twitter account. The country’s pro-Kurdish opposition party, which also opposed the constitutional changes, said it plans to object to two-thirds of the ballots.

An unprecedented decision by Turkey’s Supreme Election board to accept as valid ballot papers that don’t have the official stamp also drew the ire of the CHP, with the party’s deputy chairman, Bulent Tezcan, saying the decision had left the referendum “with a serious legitimacy problem.”

The board made the announcement after many voters complained about being given ballot papers without the official stamp, saying ballots would be considered invalid only if proven to have been fraudulently cast.

Sunday’s vote approved 18 constitutional changes that will replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of government with a presidential one, abolishing the office of the prime minister and granting sweeping executive powers to the president. The changes will come into effect with the next general election, scheduled for 2019.

The reforms allow the president to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency. They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents and also allow the president to remain at the helm of a political party.

Erdogan and his supporters had argued the “Turkish-style” presidential system would bring stability and prosperity in a country rattled by a failed coup last year that left more than 200 people dead, and a series of devastating attacks by the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.

But opponents fear the changes will lead to autocratic one-man rule, ensuring that the 63-year-old Erdogan, who has been accused of repressing rights and freedoms, could govern until 2029 with few checks and balances.

The ballots themselves did not include the referendum question — it was assumed to be understood. Voters used an official stamp to select between “yes” and “no.” At one Istanbul polling station, eager voters lined up outside before it opened at 8 a.m.

“I don’t want to get on a bus with no brake system. A one-man system is like that,” said Istanbul resident Husnu Yahsi, 61, who said he was voting “no.” In another Istanbul neighborhood, a “yes” voter expressed full support for Erdogan.

“Yes, yes, yes! Our leader is the gift of God to us,” said Mualla Sengul. “We will always support him. He’s governing so well.” Erdogan first came to power in 2003 as prime minister and served in that role until becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president in 2014.

The referendum campaign was divisive and heavily one-sided, with the “yes” side dominating the airwaves and billboards across the country. Supporters of the “no” vote have complained of intimidation, including beatings, detentions and threats.

The vote comes as Turkey has been buffeted by problems. Erdogan survived a coup attempt last July, which he has blamed on his former ally and current nemesis Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in the United States. Gulen has denied knowledge of the coup attempt.

Still, a widespread government crackdown has targeted followers of Gulen and other government opponents, branding them terrorists and a state of emergency has been imposed. Roughly 100,000 people — including judges, teachers, academics, doctors, journalists, military officials and police — have lost their jobs in the government crackdown, and more than 40,000 have been arrested. Hundreds of media outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down.

Turkey has also suffered renewed violence between Kurdish militants and security forces in the country’s volatile southeast, as well as a string of bombings, some attributed to the Islamic State group, which is active across the border in Syria.

The war in Syria has led to some 3 million refugees crossing the border into Turkey. Turkey has sent troops into Syria to help opposition Syrian forces clear a border area from the threat posed by Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Europe have been increasingly tense, particularly after Erdogan branded Germany and the Netherlands as Nazis for not allowing Turkish ministers to campaign for the “yes” vote among expatriate Turks.

Fraser reported from Ankara. Bram Janssen in Istanbul and Mucahit Ceylan in Diyarbakir also contributed to this report.

April 16, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Voting has ended in Turkey’s historic referendum on whether to approve constitutional changes that would greatly expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The result of Sunday’s referendum will determine Turkey’s long-term political future and will likely have lasting effects on its relations with the European Union and the world.

If the “yes” vote prevails, the 18 constitutional changes will replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of government with a presidential one, abolishing the office of the prime minister and granting sweeping executive powers to the president.

Erdogan and his supporters say the “Turkish-style” presidential system would bring stability and prosperity in a country rattled by last year’s coup attempt and a series of devastating attacks by the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.

But opponents fear the changes will lead to autocratic one-man rule, ensuring that the 63-year-old Erdogan, who has been accused of repressing rights and freedoms, could govern until 2029 with few checks and balances.

More than 55 million people in this country of about 80 million were registered to vote. More than 1.3 million Turkish voters cast their ballots abroad. The ballots themselves did not include the referendum question — it was assumed to be understood. Voters used an official stamp to select between “yes” and “no.”

Erdogan described the referendum as an opportunity for “change and transformation” as he voted Sunday in Istanbul, where black-clad bodyguards with automatic weapons stood guard outside the polling station.

“We need to make a decision that is beyond the ordinary,” Erdogan said. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party and top “no” campaigner, called the referendum a vote on Turkey’s future.

“We hope the results will be good and together we can have the opportunity to discuss Turkey’s other fundamental problems,” he said. At one Istanbul polling station, eager voters lined up outside before it opened at 8 a.m.

“We are here early to say ‘no’ for our country, for our children and grandchildren,” said retired tax officer Murtaza Ali Turgut. His wife Zeynep agreed, saying: “I was going to come sleep here last night to vote at first light.”

Istanbul resident Husnu Yahsi, 61, also said he was voting “no”. “I don’t want to get on a bus with no brake system. A one-man system is like that,” he said. In another Istanbul neighborhood, a “yes” voter expressed full support for Erdogan.

“Yes, yes, yes! Our leader is the gift of God to us,” said Mualla Sengul. “We will always support him. He’s governing so well.” The official Anadolu news agency reported that military helicopters flew ballots and elections officers to some districts of the southeastern predominantly Kurdish region of Diyarbakir due to security reasons.

The proposed changes would grant the president powers to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as issue decrees and declare states of emergency. It sets a limit of two five-year terms for presidents and also allows the president to remain at the helm of a political party. The changes would come into effect with the next general election, scheduled for 2019.

Erdogan first came to power in 2003 as prime minister and served in that role until becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president in 2014. He has long sought to expand the powers of the president.

The campaign has been highly divisive and heavily one-sided, with the “yes” side dominating the airwaves and billboards across the country. Supporters of the “no” vote have complained of intimidation, recording more than 100 incidents of obstruction to its campaign efforts, including beatings, detentions and threats.

Observers from the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who were monitoring the vote. Prior to Sunday, they had noted intimidation of the “no” side, leading to a sharp rebuke from Erdogan.

The vote comes at a time when Turkey has been buffeted by problems. Erdogan survived a coup attempt last July, which he has blamed on his former ally and current nemesis Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in the United States. Gulen has denied knowledge of the coup attempt.

Still, a widespread government crackdown has targeted followers of Gulen and other government opponents, branding them terrorists and a state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt remains in effect.

Roughly 100,000 people — including judges, teachers, academics, doctors, journalists, military officials and police — have lost their jobs in the government crackdown, and more than 40,000 have been arrested. Hundreds of media outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down.

Turkey has also suffered renewed violence between Kurdish militants and security forces in the country’s volatile southeast, as well as a string of bombings, some attributed to the Islamic State group, which is active across the border in Syria.

The war in Syria has led to some 3 million refugees crossing the border into Turkey. Turkey has sent troops into Syria to help opposition Syrian forces clear a border area from the threat posed by Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Europe have been increasingly tense, particularly after Erdogan branded Germany and the Netherlands as Nazis for not allowing Turkish ministers to campaign for the “yes” vote among expatriate Turks.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Bram Janssen in Istanbul and Mucahit Ceylan in Diyarbakir contributed to this report.