Blasts hit peace rally in Tur­key

Two bombs in Ankara kill scores seek­ing an end to vi­o­lence be­tween se­cu­rity forces and Kur­dish sep­a­ratists

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ERIN CUN­NING­HAM

beirut — Two bomb blasts ripped through crowds at a rally of peace ac­tivists in the Turk­ish cap­i­tal Satur­day, killing scores, in a re­minder of the grow­ing con­flicts Tur­key faces both at home and across the bor­der in war-torn Syria.

The ex­plo­sions in Ankara, which oc­curred just min­utes and yards apart, killed 97 peo­ple and in­jured 246 more as they gath­ered to call for an end to the vi­o­lence that has flared be­tween Turk­ish se­cu­rity forces and Kur­dish sep­a­ratists in re­cent months.

Tur­key, a NATO mem­ber and key U.S. ally, shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran— all of which are em­broiled in the con­flict with the Is­lamic State. Turk­ish of­fi­cials have con­fronted Rus­sia over the lat­ter’s vi­o­la­tion of Tur­key’s airspace in re­cent days, as Rus­sian war­planes launch strikes against Syr­ian rebels, height­en­ing ten­sions.

The re­newal of Tur­key’s decades-old strug­gle with the Kurds could desta­bi­lize the re­gion fur­ther. Eth­nic Kurds have also ac­cused Turk­ish author­i­ties of fail­ing to pro­tect them from what they say is vi­o­lent spillover from Syria’s civil war.

In July, a sui­cide bomb­ing tar­get­ing another rally of Kur­dish peace ac­tivists, in the town of Su­ruc, killed 33 peo­ple and was blamed on the Is­lamic State.

Tur­key then joined the U.S.-led coali­tion car­ry­ing out strikes on the ji­hadists in­side Syria and was braced for po­ten­tial blow­back from the ex­trem­ists. Tur­key hosts more than 2 mil­lion refugees from Syria, which the gov­ern­ment says is a ma­jor source of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity.

Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu said Satur­day that there were “strong in­di­ca­tions” the at­tack was car­ried out by sui­cide bombers, although there was no im­me­di­ate claim of re­spon­si­bil­ity. He said the tar­get was Turk­ish unity, democ­racy and sta­bil­ity.

“Early in­di­ca­tors would point to ISIS as the cul­prit,” said Soner Ca­gap­tay, di­rec­tor of the Turk­ish re­search pro­gram at the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy. ISIS is a com­mon acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

Ei­ther way, “this could well be Tur­key’s 9/11,” Ca­gap­tay said. “This is sim­ply the worst terror at­tack in Turk­ish history.”

The United States also con­demned the twin bomb­ings as a ter­ror­ist at­tack. “It is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant at this time that all Turk­ish cit­i­zens recom­mit to peace and stand to­gether against terror,” the State Depart­ment said in a state­ment. Tur­key’s state-run news agency said Satur­day that Pres­i­dent Obama called Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan to of­fer his con­do­lences for those killed in the at­tack. The re­port from Tur­key’s Anadolu Agency said Obama told Er­do­gan that the United States “shared Tur­key’s grief.”

A mix of ac­tivists

The de­mon­stra­tors, mo­bi­lized by a coali­tion of Turk­ish trade unions, had gath­ered out­side Ankara’s main train sta­tion hours ear­lier to chant, wave ban­ners and flags, and call for peace. The crowd in­cluded a mix of Kur­dish and left­ist Turk­ish ac­tivists, lo­cal media re­ports said.

A video that cir­cu­lated on so­cial media showed de­mon­stra­tors link­ing arms to per­form a tra­di­tional dance be­fore a fiery ex­plo­sion erupted in the back­ground, send­ing the crowd into a panic. It was un­clear whether the ex­plo­sion was from the first or the sec­ond bomb det­o­nated out­side the sta­tion.

Im­ages from the scene showed dazed and bloody de­mon­stra­tors cling­ing to one another in the af­ter­math of the blasts. Bod­ies, some of them dis­mem­bered, lay on the street, cov­ered with flags that protesters had brought to the march.

Ten­sions be­tween po­lice and de­mon­stra­tors flared fol­low­ing the ex­plo­sions, af­ter ac­tivists ac­cused se­cu­rity forces of block­ing am­bu­lances ar­riv­ing to treat the in­jured. Tur­key’s pro-democ­racy ac­tivists say they are fed up with a state that is quick to crack down on dis­senters but can­not keep its cit­i­zens safe from ter­ror­ists.

In a live tele­vi­sion broad­cast, Turk­ish In­te­rior Min­is­ter Se­lami Alti­nok said in re­sponse to a re­porter’s ques­tion that he would not re­sign be­cause there had been no se­cu­rity breach.

Turk­ish author­i­ties an­nounced a news black­out on im­ages show­ing the mo­ment of each blast; grue­some or bloody im­ages; and “im­ages that cre­ate a feel­ing of panic,” ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press. The AP also re­ported that so­cial media users in Ankara were un­able to ac­cess Twit­ter af­ter the blast.

Tur­key, which media watchdog groups say has one of the world’s worst records on press free­dom, of­ten blocks ac­cess to Twit­ter and other sites for con­tent the gov­ern­ment deems in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

PKK calls cease-fire

Also Satur­day, the mil­i­tant Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), a hard-line Marx­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion that has led the fight for Kur­dish au­ton­omy in Tur­key, called a tem­po­rary cease-fire to calm ten­sions ahead of gen­eral elec­tions sched­uled for Nov. 1.

The PKK has been locked in a strug­gle with the Turk­ish state for three decades to win more rights — and pos­si­bly in­de­pen­dence — for Tur­key’s more than 14 mil­lion Kurds. Kur­dish com- mu­ni­ties also live in ar­eas of Iran, Iraq and Syria, where PKK-linked mili­tias have carved out ter­ri­tory and taken on the Is­lamic State. Some observers say the suc­cess of the Syr­ian-Kur­dish mili­tias in seiz­ing land in Syria has wor­ried Turk­ish of­fi­cials, who fear it could in­spire Tur­key’s Kur­dish mi­nor­ity.

In 2013, the PKK had agreed to with­draw its fight­ers from Turk­ish ter­ri­tory to mil­i­tant hide­outs in north­ern Iraq in ex­change for ex­panded con­sti­tu­tional rights for Kurds. But each side soon ac­cused the other of fail­ing to im­ple­ment the ac­cords, and vi­o­lence flared again this past sum­mer. PKK mil­i­tants at­tacked Turk­ish troops and se­cu­rity in­stal­la­tions, par­tic­u­larly in the coun­try’s volatile south­east. Tur­key launched an air cam­paign against PKK po­si­tions in north­ern Iraq, killing scores, the mil­i­tants said.

“I think with the at­tack [on Satur­day], the per­pe­tra­tors are hop­ing to in­duce the PKK, or its rogue and more rad­i­cal youth el­e­ments, to con­tinue fight­ing Tur­key,” Ca­gap­tay said.

In Su­ruc in Au­gust, Turk­ish author­i­ties rounded up 18 young Kur­dish men they ac­cused of be­long­ing to the PKK’s youth wing. The fam­i­lies of the de­tainees said they had all voted for the pro-Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Party in leg­isla­tive elec­tions in June and ac­cused the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment of pun­ish­ing Kurds af­ter the party won about 12 per­cent of the vote and gained seats in par­lia­ment.

The same elec­tions de­nied Er­do­gan’s rul­ing party a gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity for the first time since 2002. The re­sults stunned the pres­i­dent’s Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party, which sub­se­quently failed to form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment.

In Au­gust, Er­do­gan called the snap Novem­ber polls. Crit­ics say he hopes the elec­tions will de­liver his party the ma­jor­ity it needs to ex­pand his pres­i­den­tial pow­ers.

“Even if vi­o­lence spi­rals up again, the at­tack will likely have a min­i­mal im­pact on the elec­tion out­come,” Ca­gap­tay said.

“Po­lar­iza­tion over Er­do­gan trumps other con­cerns in Tur­key,” he said.

BURHAN OZBILICI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A man grieves be­side bod­ies cov­ered by de­mon­stra­tors’ flags. The twin ex­plo­sions oc­curred near the Turk­ish cap­i­tal’s main train sta­tion. The U.S. State Depart­ment said it was im­por­tant that “all Turk­ish cit­i­zens recom­mit to peace and stand to­gether against terror.”

DEFNE KA­RAD­ENIZ/GETTY IM­AGES

Peo­ple carry a wounded man in the Turk­ish cap­i­tal, Ankara. The prime min­is­ter said there were “strong in­di­ca­tions” that the at­tack was car­ried out by sui­cide bombers, though no group had claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity.

TU­MAY BERKIN/REUTERS

In­jured vic­tims em­brace. “This could well be Tur­key’s 9/11,” said Soner Ca­gap­tay of theWash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

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