July 15, 2016 seemed like a normal summer evening, with residents of Türkiye’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, looking eagerly forward to the coming weekend.
As the sun set and the warm summer air enveloped the cities, people went about their usual routines — savoring evening meals with their loved ones, trudging wearily to home from work, or coming together for a steamy cup of tea or coffee at local cafes.
Little did they know that in the next few hours, the night’s apparent serenity would give way to one of the most pivotal moments in the history of modern Türkiye, etched in the collective memories of the Turkish people as a night of defiance.
In the face of imminent danger, thousands of courageous men and women came out on the streets to protect democracy against a coup attempt orchestrated by the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).
On the orders of US-based ringleader Fethullah Gulen, FETO member putschists who had infiltrated key state institutions, particularly the military, tried to topple the democratically elected government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When darkness fell, the rumbling of the tanks, cracking of heavy gunfire, and sound of low-flying fighter jets setting off sonic booms reverberated across the two cities.
Police officers and soldiers fought valiantly against the coup plotters. On the call of President Erdogan, defiant civilians poured out to stand tall against armed pro-coup soldiers.
The emotionally-charged crowds chanted slogans amid calls echoing from the minarets of the mosques.
Coup plotters tried to seize power using tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, and heavy machinery, launching a series of attacks on several important government buildings, including the parliament, presidential palace, and police headquarters.
By morning, the tide had turned and FETO’s bid to overthrow the government was quashed. In this resistance against armed soldiers, at least 252 lost their lives and over 2,700 were injured.
How it began
It was around 9 in the evening when pro-coup soldiers took Gen. Hulusi Akar, then-Chief of General Staff, hostage at General Staff Headquarters in the capital Ankara, where the first shots were later heard as the coup attempt began.
Troops also seized the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges, which span the Istanbul Strait to connect the city’s European and Asian sides.
Then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim spoke to news channels by phone an hour later, describing the unfolding events as an “insurrection.”
“This will not be tolerated. Those involved will pay the heaviest price,” he added.
Minutes later, an explosion was heard at the Police Aviation Department in Ankara’s Golbasi district as F-16 jets piloted by the coup plotters bombed the building, killing and injuring several police officers.
The nearby Police Special Operations Center was their next target, staging an attack that claimed the lives of dozens, mostly police, while a putschist helicopter sprayed bullets at the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) headquarters as MIT forces returned fire.
Soon after midnight, FETO-backed soldiers took control of state broadcaster TRT in Istanbul, forcing a news anchor to read a declaration from coup leaders. Calling themselves the “Peace at Home Council,” the plotters claimed to take control of the state.
While the putschists sought to seize the airwaves, President Erdogan made his first call to the public that night on nationwide television.
“This incident, unfortunately, is the coup attempt of a minority within the Turkish Armed Forces. This is a revolt encouraged and used by the parallel structure (FETO) as its mastermind,” he said via a video call, urging Turkish people to take to the streets to resist the coup attempt and defend democracy.
A team of assassins had been sent that night to target Erdogan, who was on holiday in southwestern Marmaris when the putsch was launched.
Alerted about the coup bid and having narrowly escaped an armed attack on the hotel he was staying in, the president and his immediate family had boarded a helicopter that landed at his hotel with its lights turned off.
From there, they went to the nearby Dalaman Airport, where a presidential plane was waiting to take them to a safe location – initially, the capital Ankara, though Erdogan ordered the pilots to take him and his family to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport instead.
On the call of Erdogan, Turkish citizens came out on the streets to protest the coup attempt. Calls for unity were aired from mosque minarets in 81 provinces upon the instruction of Türkiye’s Religious Affairs Directorate.
Resistance to the coup bid gained steam through the early part of the night, despite the explosions and attacks launched by the putschists during these hours.
The Ankara Police Department was attacked twice near the turn of the hour by fighter jets and helicopters. In another instance, security forces returned fire on a pro-coup armored vehicle near the Prime Ministry.
Then-Parliament Speaker Ismail Kahraman arrived at a coordination center and announced that the national assembly would remain open.
In what would become another symbol of defiance in the face of the putschists, a Turkish senior staff sergeant, Omer Halisdemir, shot dead senior coup plotter Semih Terzi.
When Terzi, a brigadier general, attempted to seize control of the Special Forces Command in Ankara, Halisdemir shot him in the head. He was near instantly gunned down by pro-coup FETO-affiliated soldiers accompanying Terzi.
At 2.42 a.m., the Turkish parliament in the capital was bombed, injuring several people while severely damaging the building.
A few minutes later, a second bomb struck the parliament as speakers and lawmakers took cover in the assembly’s bomb shelter.
The tide turns
At 3 a.m., state broadcaster TRT resumed its normal transmission as soldiers who attempted to take over the building were detained.
Twenty minutes later, President Erdogan arrived in Istanbul, greeted by a large crowd.
In Ankara, the Turkish Air Force downed a military helicopter used by pro-coup forces to bomb a facility of Turkish satellite agency TURKSAT in the Golbasi district, while the putschists sent another jet to bomb parliament a second time.
Back in Marmaris, helicopters opened fire on the hotel where President Erdogan had stayed before leaving for Istanbul. Masked soldiers in heavy gear besieged the hotel, injuring five police officers.
The Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued arrest warrants for judicial officials affiliated with FETO and other members of the terror group involved in the coup attempt, including the so-called “Peace at Home Council,” which was meant to replace the government had the deadly putsch not been defeated.
A little after 5 a.m., Yildirim tweeted that 130 soldiers, including high-ranking ones, were arrested and a pro-coup general had been killed.
A new dawn
As the sun rose, the morning of July 16 began with police rounding up hundreds of coup plotters.
Soldiers who had occupied Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge began to surrender, while Ankara’s Golbasi was also brought back under control.
Meanwhile, FETO members threw bombs near the Presidential Complex, damaging a car. A military jet of the plotters bombed an intersection near the complex, killing 15.
Then-Interior Minister Efkan Ala suspended 29 military colonels and five generals whose links with FETO had been revealed.
After 8 a.m., Gen. Hulusi Akar was rescued from pro-coup forces.
By 10 in the morning, a total of 1,563 armed FETO members were detained across the country.
Police special forces entered the General Staff Headquarters at 10.25 a.m. to detain the remaining pro-coup soldiers there, while less than 50 minutes later, bombs were dropped on the runway of the Akinci Air Base – used as a command center during the coup bid – to prevent the takeoff of putschist-piloted planes.
Nearly 200 soldiers at General Staff Headquarters surrendered to police.
Around 1,374 suspected FETO-linked military personnel were detained across the country, including the 58th Artillery Brigade Commander Brig. Gen. Murat Aygun.
As of 12.57 a.m., then-Prime Minister Yildirim declared that the coup had been defeated and democracy had triumphed in Türkiye.