Turkey's Erdogan replaces transport minister amid virus outbreak

Turkey's Transport and Infrastructure Minister Mehmet Cahit Turhan speaks during a press conference in Ankara

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan replaced Transport Minister Mehmet Cahit Turhan in an overnight decree on Saturday, as the country battles a fast-growing coronavirus outbreak that has so far claimed 108 lives in just over two weeks.

Adil Karaismailoglu has been appointed as the new minister, the decree published in the Official Gazette said. No details or reasons for the move were provided. In a statement, the Transport Ministry said a handover ceremony had taken place in Ankara.

"We have very important projects ahead," Karaismailoglu was cited as saying by the ministry. "We have visionary projects that will contribute to our country's development and future. We will carry these out rapidly and together."

The ministerial change comes as Turkey rolls out a series of measures restricting international and intercity travel. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has jumped to 7,402.

Turhan and his ministry drew criticism this week for holding the first tender to prepare to build a huge canal on the edge of Istanbul amid the outbreak.

Speaking at the handover ceremony, Turhan said Turkey had been less impacted by the virus than some other countries due to the timely measures it had taken.

However, the rate of increase in infections in Turkey has outstripped many other countries in the last two weeks, with 1,704 new cases in the last 24 hours.

"Our ministry is one of the ministries in this country from which people expect projects, services from," Turhan was cited as saying. "During this period, it has operated and continued its activities domestically and internationally in line with the decisions of our Health Ministry and team of experts.

"Thankfully, by implementing these measures we have not had major issues in our social or economic lives. As a ministry, we must implement our government's decisions together and attempt to overcome this disaster with as little damage as possible."

Turhan, a former head of Turkey's Railroads Directorate and chief presidential adviser, was made a minister by Erdogan in July 2018 after Turkey's switch to a new presidential system that granted the president sweeping executive powers.

Karaismailoglu, 50, was appointed deputy transport minister last year after his resignation from the Istanbul Municipality following the election of the main opposition's Ekrem Imamoglu as mayor.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Sandra Maler, Mark Potter and Mike Harrison)