By Ece Toksabay and Daren Butler
ANKARA (Reuters) - A gang leader's video allegations of corruption among top officials has gripped millions of Turks, threatening to tarnish the image of a government already struggling with economic woes and the COVID-19 outbreak.
Convicted criminal gang leader Sedat Peker, who has a large following on social media, on Thursday released the sixth of a series of videos on YouTube which have evolved into a bitter dispute with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
"Clean Suleyman, lion Suleyman. He sent a tweet about me calling me 'dirty mafia'... I will tell you today about 'clean Suleyman'," Peker said in one of the videos, before launching into his accusations.
Peker has served several jail sentences in Turkey and said last week he is now in Dubai.
In often rambling monologues addressed to the camera from behind a desk, Peker has made uncorroborated allegations regarding suspicious deaths, rape and drug dealing, alleging links to officials close to President Tayyip Erdogan. The six videos have been viewed as many as 30 million times in total.
Addressing the issue after a cabinet meeting on Monday, Erdogan said that during his AK Party's 19-year rule the government had brought peace to the country by tackling such criminal gangs and that it would "foil this dirty script too".
Soylu has filed a criminal complaint against Peker in response to the videos, calling for an enquiry into the allegations made and for Peker to be charged with slander.
"This state knows very well the difference between criminal and innocent, right and wrong, treacherous and loyal," Soylu said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT Haber on Wednesday night.
He said Peker's actions were part of an "international operation" and called on him to return to Turkey.
Peker began releasing the videos this month after a police operation across Turkey in April targeting him and his alleged associates.
Peker, 49, rose to prominence in the 1990s as a gangland figure and was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2007 for crimes including forming and leading a criminal gang.
Political parties have sought to capitalise on the dispute, with the main opposition CHP calling for Soylu to resign.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said that political figures had associated with organised crime leaders and that Peker was given a passport and allowed to go abroad despite being known to have committed crimes. The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on Kilicdaroglu's remarks.
"The strange thing is that there is now a fight between them and the state is watching. The interior minister is just watching these disputes," Kilicdaroglu said.
Political commentators have drawn parallels with the "Susurluk" scandal of 1996, when a car crash involving a police chief, a lawmaker and a gangland assassin and drug dealer revealed links between the Turkish state and organised crime.
Then interior minister Mehmet Agar, among those targeted in Peker's latest allegations, resigned in response to that case.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans, Alexandra Hudson)