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Turkey says its global dragnet has seized dozens of its citizens in 18 countries

Students in Kosovo protest the arrest and deportation of their teachers in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, on March 29. Five Turks working with a group of schools said to be owned by cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for an attempted coup, were arrested and deported, state media said. (Visar Kryeziu/AP)

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s intelligence agency has seized at least 80 Turkish nationals from multiple countries as part of its efforts to hunt suspects with alleged links to a 2016 coup attempt, a senior Turkish official said Thursday.

Speaking to a private news channel, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Turkish agents had launched operations in 18 countries to pursue members of the Gulen movement, which Turkey blames for the attempted coup. He said some of the operations — including in Bulgaria and Malaysia — had been previously reported, but he did not name any other countries. He also did not identify the 80 suspects he said were apprehended.

At its peak, the now-embattled Gulen movement, founded by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah ­Gulen, ran a vast network of clinics, schools and foundations, but it has also been accused by the government of infiltrating the Turkish police and the judiciary. The coup attempt was executed on a summer night in 2016, with a rogue faction of the military hijacking fighter jets, tanks and helicopters in an attack on the government.

It was unclear Thursday whether the operations Bozdag referred to were arrests or deportations — or even whether they were carried out in cooperation with local authorities. Governments from Sudan to Pakistan have collaborated with Turkish officials to detain and deport employees of Gulen-supported organizations, according to rights groups and state media. In Sudan, authorities transferred ownership of Gulen-backed schools to the Turkish state.

Pakistan plans to expel Turkish teachers linked to opposition at home

Gulen, 76, is a permanent U.S. resident who now lives in Pennsylvania. Turkey has sent formal extradition requests to the federal government, but U.S. officials have said there is not enough evidence to hand over the cleric. Late last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was investigating former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn for allegedly helping plan an attempted kidnapping of Gulen in exchange for millions of dollars.

Bozdag’s comments Thursday came a week after six Turkish nationals were surreptitiously arrested and deported to Turkey from Kosovo, according to Kosovo’s prime minister, who has dismissed his top law enforcement officials for not informing him about the covert raid.

Bozdag said Thursday that the Kosovo deportations would not be the last.

“Are we going to continue seeing operations like the one that we saw in Kosovo?” the interviewer on Turkey’s HaberTurk news channel asked.

“Of course we are,” Bozdag said. “We have hit the FETO terrorist organization, both domestically and internationally, with a major blow,” he added, using an acronym for the Gulen movement. “What happened in Kosovo is a major success. But it is only one of them. Not all of [the operations] have been made public.”

Fethullah Gulen: The Islamic scholar Turkey blames for the failed coup

The remarks underscored Turkey’s apparently relentless pursuit of political opponents at home and abroad. The Turkish government has canceled passports of dissidents and journalists, leaving some stranded at airports across the globe. It has also used Interpol to issue arrest warrants for journalists and dissidents.

Inside Turkey, authorities have arrested tens of thousands of people and dismissed more than 100,000 civil servants for alleged links to Gulen.

Gulen and his followers were once allied with the ruling — and Islamist — Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Together, they aligned against secular, nationalist holdovers in the military. And abroad, they paired Gulen’s peaceful but pro-Islamist education with diplomacy and aid projects, boosting Turkey’s international profile.

But the two sides soon split, diverging over both government peace talks with Kurdish militants and state graft. In 2013, prosecutors reportedly loyal to Gulen targeted Erdogan associates, including the sons of cabinet ministers, on suspicion of corruption. Erdogan began purging alleged pro-Gulen officers from the police and judiciary.

“Since when have you protected those who staged a coup against the Turkish Republic?” Erdogan said in comments directed at Kosovo’s prime minister this month. “You will pay for this.”

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