Erdogan warns Turkey academics they will pay price over petition

Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday launched a blistering attack on academics who criticised his policies in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, warning they would pay a price after falling into a "pit of treachery".

Prosecutors have launched a major investigation against more than 1,200 Turkish academics who signed a petition denouncing the military operations against Kurdish rebels in the southeast.

At least 18 were then detained as part of the probe. The European Union and United States denounced the investigation in unusually strong statements.

Speaking in one of his regular and typically raucous meetings to supportive local Turkish politicians at his presidential palace, Erdogan said the academics had shown "real and ugly faces" after their "masks fell off".

"They spit out their hatred of our nation's values and history on every occasion and the petition has made this clearer," said Erdogan.

- 'These days are over' -

Erdogan implied that the academics would face both criminal consequences and the loss of their posts.

"So you think you will try to disrupt the unity of these nation, and continue to have a comfortable life with the help of the salary that you receive from the state and pay no price?" he said.

"Those days are over."

Erdogan said the academics will continue to thrash around "in this pit of treachery they fell in".

"In a state of law like Turkey, so-called academics who target the unity of our nation have no privilege to commit crimes," he said. "They don't have immunity."

Referring to the secular elite who ruled Turkey for many of the years before his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Erdogan said:

"Thrash about as long as you want: The old Turkey, where an entire country and nation were being run by a handful of so-called intellectuals... no longer exists."

All of those detained last week have now been released but they still face investigation and possible trial.

On Wednesday, three academics working for Sakarya University east of Istanbul who had signed the petition were arrested on the order of prosecutors, Turkish media reports said. Two were later released after questioning.

In an unusually tough statement days ahead of a visit to Turkey by US Vice President Joe Biden, the US embassy warned the investigation risked having a "chilling effect" on political discourse in Turkey.

The Turkish army is pressing on with a relentless crackdown in the southeast which the government says is aimed at flushing out Kurdish militants but activists say has claimed dozens of civilian lives.

- 'Showed his ugly face' -

Erdogan also escalated a row with the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu who last week had called the Turkish strongman a "tinpot dictator".

"I shouldn't even bother respond to him," fumed Erdogan, then adding: "No words are enough to describe what kind of a person he is."

But Erdogan then went on to vent his opinion of his rival: "He is so shameless: If you spit on his face, he thinks it's raining... None of us know if he is sane."

Kilicdaroglu on Tuesday had refused to go back on the comments, quipping that what had annoyed Erdogan was the "tinpot" remark rather than the "dictator".

"My God, give me some patience. He showed his ugly face one more time," seethed Erdogan.

Prosecutors have now opened an investigation against Kilicdaroglu for insulting the president, while Erdogan is suing him for damages of 100,000 Turkish lira ($33,000) in two separate cases over the original remarks and the new comments Tuesday.

"The amount of compensation I receive (from him) is exponentially increasing," said Erdogan.