ANKARA: Turkey's prime minister threw down the gauntlet to his rivals on Sunday, warning them against using allegations of high-level corruption to undermine his rule or he would "break their hands".
"Everyone will know their place," Erdogan told a boisterous crowd of Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters in the Black Sea province of Giresun.
"Whoever dares to harm, stir up or set traps in this country we will come to break those hands," he said.
The probe into allegations of widespread bribery by members of Erdogan's Islamic-leaning government has exposed a bitter feud between the AKP and influential Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen whose followers hold top positions in the police, judiciary and secret services.
Twenty-four people have been charged so far in connection with the investigation, including the sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler and Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, as well as the chief executive of state-owned Halkbank.
In a message on his official Twitter account, Guler denied the allegations.
"It is out of the question for us to have any unlawful affair. There is nothing that we cannot explain," he wrote.
Observers have linked last week's police raids targeting scores of people to brewing tensions between Erdogan and followers of the Gulen movement which boiled over when the government announced plans to shut down a network of private schools run by the Islamic cleric, a major source of revenue for the group.
"Let's not become one of those who shoots his brother, let's not become one of those who plays with his brother's honour," said the Turkish premier, apparently referring to the Gulen movement.
Gulenists were previously key backers of the AKP, helping it to win three elections in a row since it first took office in 2002.
'We will emerge stronger'
Erdogan has responded to the detentions with a deep purge of the police, a force he once bolstered to counter the army's clout, and has removed another 25 police chiefs as part of the fast-moving feud, local media reported on Sunday.
Erdogan had already sacked dozens of police officials, including the Istanbul police chief, for cooperating with the investigation without permission, and appointed Selami Altinok, a little-known governor with no police credentials, for the powerful post, which was further seen as an attempt to shut down the investigation.
Shortly after taking office, the new Istanbul police chief barred journalists from police stations across the country, local media reported.
A lawyer for Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, has denied that he was involved in the investigation, and Gulen himself lashed out at those responsible for the police purge, saying that the assault was aimed at "finishing off" his Hizmet (Service) movement.
Erdogan has said he is battling "a state within a state" and described the corruption probe, which comes ahead of crucial March municipal polls, as a smear operation against his government, which has been in power since 2002.
On Sunday, Erdogan once again blamed international plotters and "very dirty alliances" for attempting to create chaos in the country and stood firm behind the ministers named in the graft probe.
"It is not all about corruption," he said. "The nation will respond to those who attempt to set traps in order to tarnish ministers."
Erdogan, whose image was already bruised by mass street protests in June, is facing a key test as the country braces for an election cycle next year beginning with local polls in March.
"The nation will win on March 30, democracy will win," he said. "We will emerge stronger as long as we remain united."