President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on Wednesday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on Wednesday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN

ANKARA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched on Wednesday 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 into more than 1,200 Turkish academics who signed a petition denouncing the state’s military operations against Kurdish rebels in the southeast.

At least 18 were detained as part of the probe.

The European Union and the US denounced the probe in unusually strong statements.

Speaking in one of his typically raucous meetings to supportive local Turkish politicians at his presidential palace, Mr 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 Mr Erdogan.

He 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 this 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 asked. "Those days are over."

Mr Erdogan said the academics would continue to thrash around "in this pit of treachery".

Referring to the secular elite, who ruled Turkey for many of the years before his Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Mr 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."

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

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

AFP