Four Turkish journalists detained on charges of links to an underground anti-government network were released Monday afternoon.

Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık are among the journalists who were jailed pending trial in the Odatv case. Thirteen suspects are facing charges of involvement in the media wing of Ergenekon, a shadowy network believed to have plotted to topple the government.

Şener and Şık were arrested in March and had been held in a top-security prison outside İstanbul since then. Their arrest raised concerns over media freedoms in Turkey. The United States, the European Union and human rights groups criticized the prosecution of journalists, which, they say, taints Turkey's image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.

Two other suspects, Coşkun Musluk and Sait Çakır, were also released on Monday.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç welcomed the release of the journalists as a "positive development" without directly commenting on the ruling.

"One can only be glad at their release. It is saddening that they spent 375 days inside," Arınç said in a news conference on Monday. "We should, in fact, question why the court didn't deliver this decision before."

The EU also welcomed the court's decision on Monday. Peter Stano, spokesperson of EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle, said the release of the journalists was "a pleasing step." He added that the bloc would monitor the case, noting that the progress report that is scheduled for released in the autumn would also mention the release of the journalists.

Prosecutors say a number of documents seized from the news portal's offices include various strategies on how to manipulate the media and the public to get support for an investigation into Ergenekon. Şener and Şık are accused of establishing a terrorist organization, managing it, being a member of it, inciting hatred and animosity among the public, obtaining documents related to the security of the state, being in possession of documents that are prohibited from being revealed and violating the privacy of others.

With the release of the four suspects, there are now six jailed suspects in the Odatv case. The İstanbul court rejected requests to release jailed suspects Yalçın Küçük, Soner Yalçın, Barış Pehlivan, Barış Terkoğlu, Hanefi Avcı and Müyesser Uğur during the same hearing on Monday.

Main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu welcomed the "belated release" of the journalists in a written statement and said he hopes it may open a "door of freedom" for other people, who have been unfairly deprived of their freedom.

The decision of the 16th İstanbul High Criminal Court overseeing the case came as a surprise. Relatives, friends and colleagues of the freed journalists shouted for joy outside the court and some cried and hugged each other upon hearing the news.

"Ahmet and Nedim are free," people shouted, shocked at the decision. Şık's brother, Bülent Şık, told Reuters: "Today's decision was a surprise for Ahmet and Nedim. They didn't expect it either."

The court based its decision on the length of time the defendants had already spent in prison and the low risk of them being able to tamper with evidence in the case.

However, critics have accused the government of scare-mongering over Ergenekon to silence opponents. The government denies any such motive. Human rights groups also criticized the length of time defendants remain in custody awaiting trial.

Lawyers for the defendants argue that computer documents central to the evidence against their clients were introduced by computer viruses and that this has been confirmed by investigations conducted by four universities.

If found guilty, the defendants could face a maximum 15-year prison sentence. The next hearing is scheduled for June 18. Şener and Şık have already set out their defense, calling the charges against them politically motivated and "a massacre of justice."

Turkey is holding nearly 100 members of the media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide. The government says they are not being prosecuted because of what they have written or broadcast.

Erdogan Nears Record of Duration of Service

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will surpass Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel in terms of uninterrupted service as prime minister on March 15, when he will enter his 10th year in power.

Erdoğan is currently Turkey's fourth longest serving prime minister, after former prime ministers İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes and Süleyman Demirel; Turkey, so far, has had 25. Erdoğan is also the third longest consecutive serving prime minister. İnönü was the longest with an uninterrupted 12 years in office. Menderes served a consecutive 10 years, five months in office. Özal served a consecutive five years, 11 months, while Demirel follows him with five-and-a-half years in office.

If Erdoğan stays in power until 2015, when his party's third term will expire, he will have served for an uninterrupted 13 years and three months, which would make him the prime minister to have served the longest consecutive term in office. But the record for the longest term overall in office, although with interruptions, will still belong to İnönü, as he held the prime ministry office for a total of 16 years, four months.

Erdoğan was convicted of "provoking hatred" and encouraging extremism in 1998 and banned from politics. Relevant constitutional amendments were carried out after the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, swept to power in 2002, and Erdoğan was eligible to run in parliamentary elections held in March 2003.

He was then elected prime minister and formed the 59th government. On July 22, 2007, the AKP received 47 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, and Erdoğan formed the 60th government. Erdoğan's AKP won a third consecutive term in the 2011 general elections by securing a record-high 50 percent of votes.

Annan Arrives in Turkey, Say Killings in Syria Must Stop

United Nations peace envoy Kofi Annan expressed deep concern Monday over the violence in Syria, urging the world to send a clear message to Damascus that the killings of civilians must stop immediately.

Annan left Syria on Sunday without a deal to end the bloody year-old conflict there as President Bashar al-Assad's forces mounted a new assault on rebel strongholds in the north.

Annan met with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara on Monday, following talks in Qatar earlier in the day. Annan is expected to meet members of the Syrian opposition in Ankara on Tuesday, according to his staff.

Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed at least 16 people -- including children -- in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government in the embattled central city of Homs.

The UN estimates that Syria's crackdown has killed more than 7,500 people so far. The killings add to the pressure on UN Security Council members who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence.

The international community's current effort -- a peacemaking mission by Annan -- is faltering, with both the Syrian government and the opposition refusing to talk to one another.

"There are grave and appalling reports of atrocities and abuses. The killing of civilians must stop now. The world has to send a clear and united message in this regard," Annan told reporters upon his arrival in Ankara. He said the diplomatic process would take time.

"This a very complex situation," Annan said. "We are going to press ahead for humanitarian access, for the killings of civilians to stop, and that get everybody to the table to work out a political solution."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, urged Syria's president to take swift action to end his regime's bloody crackdown and appealed to the divided UN Security Council to speak with one voice and help Syria "pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe."

Ban said the conflict in Syria has led the entire region into uncertainty and subjected citizens in several cities to disproportionate violence.

Russia, which is Syria's most powerful ally, and China have vetoed two U.S. and European-backed Security Council resolutions that would have condemned Assad's bloody crackdown, saying they were unbalanced and demanded that only the government stop attacks, not the opposition. Moscow accused Western powers of fueling the conflict by backing the rebels.

The UN chief said he joined Annan "in urging President Assad to act swiftly, within the next few days in response to the proposals."

Syria's envoy to the United Nations in Geneva accused Israel of supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. Ambassador Fayssal al-Hamwi told the UN Human Rights Council on Monday that Israeli weapons were being funneled to opposition groups and foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida.

Israel said the allegation by the Syrian envoy was baseless.

"There isn't even one milligram of credibility to anything any Syrian official says these days," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Associated Press. "This latest allegation carries even less credibility than the usual lies."

Al-Hamwi was responding to a UN-commissioned expert report that found "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians in the Syrian government's violent crackdown on opposition groups.

The UN panel's chairman, Brazilian professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said civilians have died due to the government's obstruction of humanitarian aid.

The Red Cross is still waiting for unimpeded access to areas affected by fighting.

Tehran Denies Claim of Waning Iranian Support

An Iranian official has asserted that Tehran fully supports the Syrian government amid widespread anti-regime protests, denying a recent claim by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that Iran's support for President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been fading.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reiterated the Islamic Republic's full backing for the Syrian government and nation, Iran's Press TV reported on Monday. He also dismissed a recent Turkish report quoting Davutoğlu as saying Iran and Russia's support for Syria had waned.

Davutoğlu was quoted as saying on Saturday to the Turkish daily, Radikal, that Iran and Russia have been revising their expectations as to Assad's fate.

"They had both expected that Assad would have a hard time, but eventually be able to reinstate his control. Now, they do not stand by Assad as determinedly as they were last August. They are asking about alternatives. Both countries have begun to feel concerned about a post-Assad era," Davutoğlu said.

Amir-Abdollahian, on the other hand, said his country fully supports the Syrian regime, asserting that reforms initiated by Assad will move ahead and that the people of Syria would take a stand against "foreign intervention."

Iran, like the Syrian regime, accuses foreign countries of inciting chaos by provoking and assisting anti-regime protests. Amir-Abdollahian said Iran holds those countries that incite instability and insecurity in Syria responsible for provoking the crisis in the country.

More than 7,500 people have been killed in Syria since protests against the Syrian government.

Dozens of Syrian Civilians Killed in Homs

Dozens of civilians were killed in cold blood in the Syrian city of Homs, opposition activists and Syrian state media said on Monday, although they disputed responsibility for what both sides called a massacre.

The carnage in Homs, as well as a military assault on the northwestern city of Idlib, coincided with a weekend peace mission by United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who left Damascus on Sunday without agreement on a truce or humanitarian access.

"The terrorist armed groups have kidnapped scores of civilians in the city of Homs, central Syria, killed, and mutilated their corpses and filmed them to be shown by media outlets," state news agency SANA said on its Web site.

Footage posted by opposition activists on YouTube showed men, women and children lying dead in a blood-drenched room. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists, said at least 45 women and children had been stabbed and burned in the Homs district of Karm al-Zeitoun.

It said another seven people were slain in the city's Jobar district, which adjoins the former rebel bastion of Baba Amr.

Activists contacted in Homs accused Alawite militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out the killings under the protection of regular Syrian military forces.

Syrian government restrictions make it difficult to assess conflicting reports by the authorities and their opponents since a popular uprising against Assad began a year ago.

SANA said the Homs killings "perpetrated by the armed terrorist groups and aired by (satellite TV channels) Al Jazeera and Arabiya coincide with today's UN Security Council session to call for foreign interference in Syria."

UN Meets on Arab Revolts

The Security Council held a special meeting on Arab revolts later on Monday and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines.

Russia and China have blocked attempts to pass a Security Council resolution condemning Damascus for its attempts to crush the rebellion. The United Nations has reported that more than 7,500 people have been killed. Syrian authorities said in December insurgents had killed over 2,000 soldiers and police.

The United States has drafted a new resolution, but Washington and Paris say they doubt it will be accepted.

On the other hand, China sounded an optimistic note, but gave no details.

"China has actively participated in discussion about this draft resolution, and raised its ideas about revising it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Monday. "We also support the international community playing an active role in a political solution to the Syria issue."

China and Russia, as well as Western and Arab nations, have voiced support for Annan's peace mission, but no common ground has emerged between Assad, who is bent on crushing dissent, and his opponents, who are determined to overthrow him.

"The situation is so bad and so dangerous that all of us cannot afford to fail," Annan said in Damascus on Sunday.

Moscow and Beijing want any international blame for the violence to be apportioned evenly and say both sides should be encouraged to stop fighting. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken a hawkish line, calling for the rebels to be armed.

"The regime in Syria is committing a massacre of its own citizens," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Sunday after talks with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.

Westerwelle said in Riyadh. "We cannot accept the completely unreasonable continuation of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Assad regime against its own people."

Western and Arab countries have sought to isolate Assad, but he has a few allies, notably Iran, which has invited Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to a conference in Tehran on March 18 to "support the Syrian regime against its opponents," the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper reported on Monday.

Citing ministerial sources, it said "official Lebanon" had declined the invitation. Lebanon, deeply split over the crisis in its powerful neighbor, has sought to avoid taking sides.

Opposition Parties Seek to Annul Education Draft

The ruling party insists on going ahead with a controversial education reform draft as the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, continue to call the commission vote on the draft "null and void."

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said the controversial education bill might be put up for debate in the General Assembly as soon as next week, as the CHP has asked the Speaker of Parliament to nullify the draft's controversial approval at the Education Commission.

MHP Deputy Chair Oktay Vural said the commission had to start the debate from the beginning, warning of even worse tensions in Parliament.
AKP Deputy chair Mahir Ünal, however, insisted the bill's approval in the commission was lawful.

"The bill will be probably debated in the General Assembly next week," he said. 
The AKP's Mustafa Elitaş, however, said later the General Assembly might be postponed another week as the Parliament Speaker evaluates the situation.

The AKP rushed the bill through the Education Commission amid unprecedented fistfights that erupted after CHP lawmakers found themselves stuck at the door of the tiny room, which had been packed in advance with AKP deputies. Commission Chairman Nabi Avcı took advantage of the chaos and hastily read out the remaining 20 articles of the draft, which were approved by AKP votes in half an hour.

The CHP discussed the issue Monday at the party's central administrative board and decided to ask the Parliamentary Speaker's office to nullify the commission proceedings.

"If the Parliamentary Speaker has a bit of commitment to democracy, he will consider the commission meeting null and void. Otherwise, I don't recognize him. I will not attend any meeting chaired by him," CHP Deputy Chair Muharrem İnce said.

Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, Deputy Chair Hasip Kaplan said his party also disapproved of the way the bill was approved at the commission. Brushing aside the opposition objections, AKP Deputy Chairman Nurettin Canikli insisted the Parliamentary Speaker had no right to send the bill back to the commission.

Speaking after meeting with Çiçek, Canikli said: "The Parliamentary Speaker is evaluating the issue. But the Parliamentary Speaker has no authority [to return the bill]. A parliamentary commission's decision can only be examined by the Constitutional Court."

Turkish Navy Adopts New High-Sea Strategy

Turkey's Naval Forces aim to protect lines of communication on the high seas to assure global maritime security and protect national interests under an austere defense budget as part of its new strategy, a top Turkish Navy commander has said.

"Our force planners use strategic decision-making, focusing on sophisticated, modular designs that allow us to move toward economy in our operations with fewer crew and lower fuel costs. The objective is to maintain and develop a credible naval force despite budget constraints," Admiral E. Murat Bilgel, commander of the Turkish Naval Forces, said in an interview in the March issue of Proceedings, a monthly magazine published by the United States Naval Institute.

For these purposes, the Navy must be a versatile, well-trained, and well-equipped force that can be deployed at strategic distances, Bilgel said, adding that the force must be "fully interoperable with its military and nonmilitary counterparts while protecting sea lines of communication and being prepared to support joint and combined land activities from the sea."

To achieve these goals, the Navy will make the best use of Turkey's shipbuilding and design capacity at domestic naval and private shipyards, research centers, and via the defense industry, the admiral said. 
The top commander also gave information on the Navy's future strategy. In the short term, the Navy will improve its situational awareness capabilities by adding corvettes and patrol boats to its fleet.

Within a decade, the Turkish Naval Forces will focus on conducting operations other than war by building a reconfigurable landing platform with airlift capability, a combat-support ship, multifunctional frigates with unmanned and manned rotary-wing aircraft, as well as air-independent propulsion submarines.

The Navy aims to advance its limited-strike ability over the next 20 years through the acquisition of a multipurpose landing platform with organic short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, air defense frigates and unmanned underwater vehicles.

The Turkish Navy is already planning to buy the design for its first landing platform dock (LPD). Three Turkish-led groups are currently vying for the contract that will be worth between $500 million and $1 billion. 
Turkey is expected to spend more than $4 billion on defense procurement this year. In recent years, it has focused on Navy programs. Multibillion-dollar naval programs have included the joint production of six modern submarines with Germany, as well as the largely local manufacture of eight corvettes.

"In line with [our] objectives, we will continue to sustain operational effectiveness and a deterrent posture through innovation, maintaining the strategy and technology interface, exploiting indigenous capacity, prioritizing projects and continuous manpower education and training," Bilgel said.

Turkey to Begin Drilling in Cyprus, TPAO Says

Turkey will begin drilling for oil or gas off Turkish Cyprus toward the end of March, having carried out seismic studies, the head of state energy company Turkish Petroleum Corporation, or TPAO, said Monday.

Greek Cyprus started exploring for gas south of the island in September 2011, angering Turkey. 
In reaction, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot administration signed a pact paving the way for exploration, and dispatched its seismic research vessel to search for potential reserves.

"We're starting drilling in northern Cyprus in the coming days... We have started shipping our equipment there," TPAO Chief Executive Mehmet Uysal told Reuters, adding that drilling would start before the end of March. 
Meanwhile, Turkish Cypriot President Derviş Eroğlu was set to pay a visit to Ankara on Tuesday at the invitation of his Turkish counterpart, President Abdullah Gül.

Eroğlu is expected to discuss the Cyprus process with Gül. He will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Kudret Özersay.

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