ISTANBUL Three senior retired Turkish military officers were freed by prosecutors on Thursday, in a move that could help avert confrontation between the country's Islamist-rooted government and the secular armed forces.
It was not immediately clear if the officers, two of them former force commanders belonging to the very top echelon of the military, could still face charges in connection with the case.
Tensions between the military and ruling AK party have risen sharply following the detention on Monday of 50 senior officers accused of conspiring to topple Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government in 2003.
The showdown, in a country where the military has toppled four governments in the last 50 years, has rattled the Turkish currency and stocks, and fuelled talk of an early election.
Prosecutors on Thursday evening released from custody the three most senior detainees -- retired air force commander Ibrahim Firtina, ex-navy chief Ozden Ornek, and a former deputy chief of general staff, Ergin Saygun, broadcasters reported.
Istanbul Deputy Chief Prosecutor Turan Colakkadi said the commanders, who were first questioned in the probe late last year, were believed unlikely to interfere in the investigation which was ongoing, reported state-run news agency Anatolian.
"We don't believe they intend to destroy any evidence. And as they did not leave their places of residence after we let them go two to three months ago, we released them on the belief they would not attempt to escape this time either," Anatolian reported Colakkadi as saying.
Some 20 senior military officers have already been charged and remanded in custody in connection with a plot codenamed "Sledgehammer."
"I am here to illuminate an ongoing legal process, to explain the shortcomings and mistakes which have been presented as true, whether regarding myself, the Air Force, or the heroic Turkish Armed Forces. I believe I have done that sufficiently and I am now among you," state-run Anatolian news agency quoted Firtina as telling reporters.
President Abdullah Gul had earlier held crisis talks with Erdogan and General Ilker Basbug, head of the military, and issued a statement assuring Turks that the country's problems would be resolved "within the framework of the constitution."
"Everyone must act responsibly to prevent harm to our institutions," Gul said.
Erdogan described the meeting as having gone "very well," and said there were no plans for a snap poll, broadcasters reported. There was no immediate comment from Basbug.
While the military has said the days of coups are now over, Basbug is believed to be under intense pressure from within the armed forces to uphold the prestige of the services.
The AK Party, first elected in 2002 in a landslide victory over rivals blighted by corruption and accusations of misrule, is also embroiled in a dispute with the judiciary -- another pillar of the secular elite who represent Turkey's old guard.
Hardline secularists believe Erdogan's party harbours a hidden Islamist agenda. The AK Party, which also embraces nationalist and centre-right forces, denies such charges.
The tensions have taken a toll on financial markets and fed speculation that Turkey's chief prosecutor could attempt to ban the AK Party, having tried and failed in 2008. That in turn could prompt the government to call an early election.
Parliamentary elections are due in 2011.
Turkish markets had closed by the time the two officers were freed, and both shares and the lira currency weakened.
The Istanbul stock market's benchmark index was down 1.85 percent, while the lira weakened slightly to close at 1.5520 to the dollar, having lost more than 3 percent since trouble first erupted with the judiciary a week ago.
The sight of top military brass being escorted to court -- unthinkable only a few years ago -- has riveted Turkey.
"We were shocked to see that the generals are not as untouchable as they thought they were," said Mehmet Sirdik, 20, on the way out from a recruitment office in Istanbul where he was registering for mandatory military service.
"These are pashas, the leaders of our country," he said using an Ottoman term for the military officers. "But it's a process I believe in and I'm sure the right thing will be done."
Critics of the AK Party say the government is using probes into alleged coup plots to hound political opponents.
"They would not have been detained if they didn't do anything wrong. But no one has any idea what happened or what is happening," said Aziz Bayram, a 40-year-old Istanbul taxi driver.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove, Ibon Villelabeitia, Zerin Elci and Pinar Aydinli; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Ralph Boulton)