ANKARA - Two Turkish ministers stepped down Wednesday, the first heads to roll over a massive graft probe that has presented Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the biggest challenge to his 11 years in power.
Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Interior Minister Muammer Guler announced their resignations just hours after Erdogan returned from a trip abroad, expected to reshuffle his cabinet.
The sons of both ministers are among the two dozen people who have been charged as part of a high-level bribery and corruption probe that has ensnared close government allies and top businessmen.
Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2002 as the head of a conservative Islamic-leaning government, has described the probe as "a smear campaign" to undermine Turkey's ambitions to become a major political and economic power.
The political tensions have hit the already slowing Turkish economy, pushing the national currency to hover record lows against the US dollar.
Erdogan has responded to the investigation by sacking dozens of police chiefs.
"We will be patient. We will not fall into traps," Erdogan told thousands of supporters who flocked to the Ankara airport late Tuesday to greet him on his return from an official visit to Pakistan.
The Turkish premier held a midnight summit at his Ankara home with some of his ministers including Guler, local media reported.
Caglayan kept up the government's defiance in Wednesday's resignation statement, declaring that the investigation was "clearly a hideous plot against our government, our party and our country."
"I am stepping down from my post as economy minister so that this ugly game targeting my close colleagues and my son will be spoiled and the truth will be revealed," Caglayan said.
Guler, the interior minister, simply told the state-run Anatolia news agency that "I offered my resignation to the prime minister on December 17 and today I conveyed it in writing."