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Turkish president defiant as wiretap scandal swirls

Turks in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Istanbul base defied calls for his ouster as corruption allegations stemming from a purported secret recording of the leader and his son plotting to hide millions in cash continued to shake the government.

Residents in the conservative Istanbul district where Erdogan was raised stood by their prime minister of more than a decade even as calls for his resignation resounded elsewhere in the nation of 77 million. Erdogan, who has presided over increasing prosperity even as the nation has inched closer to Islamic rule, claims the widely-circulated recording is a phony - as do his admirers.

"I think this investigation is an effort to remove Erdogan from power by enemies of Turkey. He has made our country stronger, richer, with a say in the world," said clothing shop owner Belguzar Ekmen, 33, who also thinks the recordings are fake. "I can't say whether there has been corruption but I can measure how much our lives have improved, in terms of healthcare, education, transportation." 

But the mood contrasted sharply with one of outrage in areas where Erdogan enjoys less support, illustrating the deepening polarization of a country which his AK Party has ruled since 2002. Opposition politicians called on Erdogan to resign over the audio tape but he has stood firm, accusing enemies of hacking encrypted state communications to fake a phone call at the time of police raids into a graft inquiry

Turkish president Abdullah Gul, an ally of Erdogan, approved a controversial bill Wednesday that could help the prime minister fend off an investigation into the charges. The law would limit the independence of the judiciary by giving the Erdogan-controlled Justice Ministry increased control over a council that appoints and oversees judges and prosecutors. It was one in a series of contentious measures rushed through by the government as it attempts to limit fallout from a corruption and bribery scandal that has already forced Erdogan to dismiss four ministers.

In the recording that, if authentic, directly implicates Erdogan, he and his son, Bilal, are heard discussing ways of disposing of vast amounts of cash from a residence. The wiretapped recording was leaked on the Internet and tThe Ankara chief prosecutor's office is investigating.

At one point, the voice supposedly of Bial says some 30 million euros ($40 million) still remained to be disposed of, Reuters reported.

"This is not an attack on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AK Party, but an attack on the Turkish Republic," Erdogan thundered Tuesday in a weekly speech to parliament members. Erdogan labeled the audio recordings "immoral edited material."

The government has already removed thousands of police officers, judges and prosecutors from their posts since the scandal erupted in December.

The latest development and the government's rapid response to the allegations have spawned protests.  Some 1,000 opposition party supporters gathered in central Istanbul, scattering fake 100 euro bills into the air. The gesture was to mock Erdogan, who according to the unconfirmed audio recordings leaked on the internet, instructed his son to "reduce to zero" large amounts of money by distributing them to businessmen and other people apparently close to the family.

Turks in the conservative Istanbul district where Erdogan drew up stood defiantly by their prime minister Wednesday, Reuters reported.

The mood contrasted sharply with one of outrage in areas where Erdogan is disliked, highlighting the deepening divide in the country, the report said.

The recordings reportedly have triggered recriminations between political parties and have dominated media coverage.

Opposition politicians called on the prime minister to resign over the tape, but he has stood firm.  He reportedly accused enemies of hacking encrypted state communications to fake a phone call at the time of police raids into a graft inquiry.

Clothing shop owner Belguzar Ekmen, 33, thinks the recordings are fake.

"I think this investigation is an effort to remove Erdogan from power by enemies of Turkey,” he told Reuters.  “He has made our country stronger, richer, with a say in the world,"

"I believe the tapes are true. I have always thought that he was stealing," Hasan Demir, 37, an Ankara cab driver, told Reuters. "But I know people will vote for him again. They distribute coal, rice to poor people. Who can say no to that?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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