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Turkish corruption prosecutors flee after arrest warrants issued

ANKARA (Reuters) - Two Turkish prosecutors who led a high-profile investigation into alleged corruption around President Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle fled to Armenia hours before arrest warrants were issued for them this week, authorities said on Tuesday.

Zekeriya Oz, the former chief prosecutor of Istanbul, his colleague Celal Kara and a third prosecutor all face charges of attempting to overthrow the government forcefully and forming a criminal organisation, Turkish media have said.

Oz and Kara fled the country on Monday, just before the arrest warrants were issued, according to a statement from the governor of the northeastern province of Artvin, which borders Georgia and through which he said the men had crossed.

Local media published pictures that appeared to show Oz and Kara leaving Turkey.

It was not immediately clear whether the third man, Mehmet Yuzgec, had been arrested. It was also unclear why the two men had fled to Armenia, a small ex-Soviet republic which shares a border with Turkey but has no diplomatic relations with Ankara.

“Those who get their judicial powers from circles other than the people escape justice like this,” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan wrote on Twitter of the two men’s departure.

Erdogan portrayed the corruption scandal, which at the time posed one of the biggest challenges to his more than decade-long tenure as prime minister, as a coup attempt orchestrated by a former ally, U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen, whose network of followers long wielded influence in the police and judiciary, has denied plotting against the state.

Oz was ousted from his post in May, more than a year after he launched what was one of Turkey’s biggest ever corruption investigations.

The probe, which became public with raids on Dec. 17, 2013, led to the resignation of three ministers and prompted Erdogan to purge the state apparatus, reassigning thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors deemed loyal to Gulen.

Erdogan switched from prime minister to president last year.

Oz was once seen as doing Erdogan’s bidding. He is known for leading the prosecution of the high-profile Ergenekon trial, putting former generals behind bars on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The case lay at the heart of Erdogan’s drive to break the political power of the once-mighty military.

Oz is reportedly close to the Gulen movement, which is believed to have helped drive the Ergenekon trial forward.

Last year, Turkey released Ergenekon convicts including prominent journalists, lawyers and retired officers, after the corruption probe deepened the rift between Erdogan and Gulen.

Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones