Two members of the security forces and a civilian were killed in an armed attack in the Central Anatolian province of Niğde on Thursday, an incident that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed on unspecified “terrorists.”
Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said he received information indicating that Syrians were involved in the attack and suggested that the incident might be an attempt to foment instability ahead of the local elections on March 30. Identities of the assailants, two of whom were reportedly captured, or their motives were still unclear when Today's Zaman went to print.
Gendarmes and police officers were manning a checkpoint in the Ulukışla district of Niğde when the attackers opened fire from a truck, according to the private Doğan news agency. Even though Erdoğan said three members of the security forces were killed in the attack, an Interior Ministry statement stated that a police officer and a gendarme were killed. The driver of the truck, which was stolen, was also killed in the exchange of fire.
"In the information I received, there is a note about Syria. It is very grave. They may be aiming to stir up the election atmosphere," Atalay was quoted as saying by the Hürriyet newspaper.
Private broadcaster NTV reported that the assailants were coming from Hatay, a province on the border with Syria.
Turkey is headed to the elections amid political tensions over a corruption case targeting close allies of Prime Minister Erdoğan. The prime minister has dismissed the accusations, saying the investigation is a plot against his government by domestic and foreign conspirators.
Addressing an election rally in the northwestern province of Sakarya, Erdoğan called the attack a “terrorist attack” but did not say who was responsible. The word “terrorist” is generally used in reference to members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group recognized as such by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
"A nefarious terrorist attack has been carried out against our gendarmerie and police in the Ulukışla district of Niğde," Erdoğan said. Two of the assailants were captured alive and police were searching for a third, he added. News reports said the two suspected assailants were also injured.
Four other members of the security forces were injured in the exchange of fire, news reports said. Two of them were in critical conditions.
A crowd of locals gathering in front of the hospital where the suspected assailants were brought for treatment attempted to attack them. Video footage showed the police dispersing the crowd by spraying tear gas on them as the ambulance carrying the suspects parked in front of the hospital.
News reports said the suspects were speaking in Arabic as they were brought into the hospital.
Southeastern Turkey has seen similar attacks by the PKK terrorists in the past, but the region has been relatively calm since a cease-fire was announced last year as part of a peace process with the government. Isolated clashes have occasionally threatened the cease-fire, which is still holding as Turkey and the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, negotiate a peace process.
The attack has also renewed concerns that Syria's vicious civil war may destabilize Turkey. Turkey has seen Syria's three-year-long conflict spilling into its borders occasionally, with mortar shells exploding on its soil, causing civilian deaths. Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometer border with Syria, has been among the fiercest opponents of President Bashar al-Assad and has been housing more than 700,000 Syrian refugees.
About half a million refugees live outside the camps, paving the way for increasingly disgruntled local communities who complain about a rise in robberies and crime. There are also accusations that the government has jeopardized Turkey's stability by supporting opposition fighters and helping anti-regime forces by turning a blind eye to passage of radical foreign fighters into Syria through the Turkish territory.
The government denies supporting the opposition fighters, saying its efforts are limited to sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence.
Opposition deputy slams government
The opposition swiftly slammed the government after the attack, saying it bears the responsibility for it. Oktay Vural, a senior official of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) criticized Atalay for what he called an attempt to exonerate the PKK by suggesting Syrian involvement. But he added that the responsibility would still lie with the government even though the attack was really conducted by the Syrians.
“The government has created security problems,” he said, accusing the government of “feeding militants of al-Nusra [Front] and al-Qaeda.”
“This issue should be cleared up immediately,” Vural said.