Authorities detained nine Turkish citizens believed to have links to the Syrian intelligence agency in connection with two car bombs that left 46 people dead in a Turkish border town, officials said Sunday, with Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay telling press that all nine suspects have confessed to organizing and carrying out the attacks.
Condemnations continued to flow on Sunday in the wake of twin car bombs that killed 46 people and wounded many more on Saturday in Reyhanlı, a district of the southern province of Hatay, with nine people being detained in connection with the attack and the Syrian regime pointed to by authorities as the number one “usual suspect” for the tragedy.
All nine detained are Turkish citizens and include the alleged mastermind.
The attack was one of the deadliest in the country in recent years. Thirty-five of the 46 dead were Turks and three Syrians. Autopsies are being carried out on the remaining victims. As many as 100 people were injured in the attack.
One of the car bombs exploded outside the city hall while the other went off outside the post office in the town of Reyhanlı, a main hub for Syrian refugees and opposition activity in Turkey's Hatay province, just across the border.
According to police sources, five of the captured suspects are members of the terrorist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) while the remaining four are members of the Acilciler (“Urgent Ones”), a splinter faction of the Turkish People's Liberation Party/Front (THKP/C) operating in the border provinces of Turkey. The suspects are accused of helping the bomb-laden vehicles enter Turkey.
In initial comments, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the attack.
“I would like to send a message to my brothers in Reyhanlı. We have recently launched a settlement process [to address the conflict in the Southeast] and those who cannot digest this new period and the atmosphere of freedom in our country could be involved in such attacks.”
“Another sensitive issue is that Hatay province [where the explosions occurred] is on the border with Syria; these actions may have been taken to provoke those sensitivities,” he said.
Many government officials blamed the attack on a group linked to Syria. Interior Minister Muammer Güler called the neighboring country's intelligence service and military the “usual suspects.” “This incident was carried out by an organization that is in close contact with pro-regime groups in Syria and I say this very clearly, with the Syrian Mukhabarat [intelligence agency],” he said, adding that 735 shops, 62 vehicles, 120 houses and eight government offices were damaged in the explosions.
Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said initial findings suggest the attackers came from inside Turkey, but had links to Syria's intelligence service. “We have to a great extent completed our work toward identifying the assailants,” he told reporters. “We have established that the assailants have links to the pro-regime al-Mukhabarat [intelligence] organization.”
Syria, however, denied that it had a hand in the bombings.
The death toll rose throughout the day as many of the injured were critically wounded. Twenty-five of the some 140 injured are in a critical condition. At least 100 kilograms of TNT explosives were used in the attack.
The bombings increased fears that Syria's civil war was crossing over to its neighbor and that Turkey was being pulled deeper into the conflict.
President Bashar al-Assad's government was the “usual suspect,” Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said. “A detailed investigation is ongoing to find out the perpetrators of the bombing. The bombings will be illuminated in the shortest time possible and their perpetrators will be brought to justice.” He also said “Turkey would do whatever is necessary” if it is proven that Syria is behind the attack.
The bombs exploded in crowded streets near Reyhanlı's shopping district in the early afternoon, scattering concrete blocks and smashing cars in the town. Restaurants and cafes were destroyed and body parts were strewn across the streets. The damage went at least three blocks from the site of the blasts.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey reserves the right to take “every kind of measure,” but he said he saw no need for an emergency meeting of NATO, which would be the first step towards involving the alliance in any possible response. According to the minister, those involved in the bombings in Reyhanlı were thought to have also carried out an attack on the Syrian coastal town of Baniyas a week ago, in which fighters backing Assad were reported to have killed at least 62 people. “There may be those who want to sabotage Turkey's peace, but we will not allow that,” the minister told reporters during a trip to Berlin. “No one should attempt to test Turkey's power.”
Turkey is sheltering more than 300,000 Syrians, most of them in camps along the frontier, and is struggling to keep up with the influx.
Tensions ran high in Reyhanlı after the blast, with locals reportedly attacking Syrian-plated cars and Syrian refugees. Tensions have already been high in the district for a couple of weeks. Recently, Syrian youths got into a fight with Turkish youths in Reyhanlı, which hosts a large number of Syrian refugees. Following the fight, the Turkish group carried Turkish flags around the city and protested the presence of the Syrians.
The main opposition Syrian National Coalition said the attacks were a failed attempt to “destroy the brotherhood” between Syrians and Turks and were intended as a punishment for Turkey's support of the uprising.
Prime Minister Erdoğan said this week Turkey would support a US-enforced no-fly zone in Syria and warned that Damascus crossed President Barack Obama's “red line” on chemical weapons use long ago. A no-fly zone to prohibit Syrian military aircraft from hitting rebel targets has been mentioned by American lawmakers as one option the United States could use to pressure Assad.
Erdoğan is due to meet Obama in Washington on May 16.
Opposition criticizes Syria policy
Turkey's opposition put the blame for the attack in Reyhanlı on the government's policy on Syria, saying its active support of the opposition had put the country's security at risk.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli said, “The prime minister's discourse of hatred toward Assad and provocations against the administration in Damascus is coming to us [Turkey] in the form of attacks and provocations.”
Bahçeli, in addition, ordered a group of his deputy chairmen and deputies to travel to Reyhanlı to carry out inspections in the town. The delegation is due to arrive in the town today.
Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu made a call on the government to use all powers and means possible to shed light on the attack and catch the perpetrators and “revise its internal and external politics” so that no new such incident will occur in the future. The CHP is also planning to send a delegation to Reyhanlı for inspections soon.
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş said his party was critical of the government's Syria policy, and the bombings were aimed at distorting the peaceful atmosphere in Turkey. However, he said, it is time for unity and solidarity, but not to criticize the government for the bombings. "We need to act in common sense and with solidarity," he stated.
Claims of third bomb-laden vehicle
Shortly after the deadly twin blasts in Reyhanlı, claims emerged that terrorists are planning a third attack in the town.
The police stepped up security measures in Reyhanlı, warning residents to be watchful. Radar jammers were deployed in various parts of the town. The police are working to figure out if there is a third bomb-laden vehicle in the town.
According to news sources, the Security General Directorate was tipped about plans for a terrorist attack inside the country last week, and the police were working to foil the plans. The police had established the plate numbers and models of the vehicles that were supposed to carry out the bomb attacks, but the vehicles escaped detection.
In the meantime, the Cihan news agency said the military began deploying huge number of air and ground military reinforcements to Reyhanlı on the Syrian border after the blasts.
The General Staff did not verify the report, but harshly condemned the attack in a statement. “We harshly condemn the attack that targeted innocent people in Reyhanlı.” The General Staff also expressed its condolences to the families of the victims and a fast recovery for the injured.
Violence has spilled over the Turkish-Syrian border before. In February, a minibus blew up at a border crossing near Reyhanlı, killing 14 people and wounding dozens more.
In October, five Turkish civilians were killed in Akçakale when a mortar bomb fired from Syria landed on their house, prompting Turkey to fire back across the frontier.