x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Turkish MP blames Al Nusra for border town attack

Opposition leader claims that Syrian rebels with links to Al Qaeda exploited lax security in Turkey's Hatay province in bombing that killed dozens of people.

ISTANBUL // A Turkish opposition MP yesterday accused the Syrian rebel group Jabhat Al Nusra of planting the twin car bombs that killed 46 people in a frontier town this weekend.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, said he held the Syrian government responsible for the attack in Reyhanli. But Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, who represents the Republican People's Party (CHP), claimed that rebels with links to Al Qaeda had exploited lax security in Turkey's Hatay province.

He said he believed that Al Nusra had planted the bombs in the frontier area in a bid to drag Turkey into Syria's civil war because the rebels have realised that they need help to overthrow Bashar Al Assad's regime.

"This was the work of a very professional terrorist organisation," said Mr Ediboglu, who represents Hatay in parliament, told The National by telephone. "It looks like an Al Qaeda-style attack," he said, adding that Al Nusra had a strong presence on the Syrian side of the border region. "They want to get Turkey into the war."

"Borders are the honour of a country," Mr Ediboglu said. "But there are great deficits in securing the border. Syrian rebels have turned the Reyhanli area into a safe haven."

Turkey's government has blamed Turkish supporters with links to Mr Al Assad's intelligence service for the bombings.

"It is an incident linked to the regime" of Mr Al Assad, said Mr Erdogan in Ankara yesterday. "The regime is behind this, that is clear." The Syrian opposition had nothing to do with the attack, he said.

"That is a lie," said Mr Ediboglu about the government's theory of involvement of the Al Assad regime.

Mr Ediboglu said the vehicles used in the attack had been smuggled in from areas close to the border on the Syrian side where Al Nusra has a strong presence. He also said that it was remarkable that only four Syrians were among the 38 victims identified so far, although an estimated 30,000 Syrians in Reyhanli lived alongside an equal number of Turks in the town.

"Syrians knew something and left the town in the morning before the attack," Mr Ediboglu said. The Erdogan government wanted to hide the truth because the attack had been a consequence of Ankara's support for rebels in Syria, he said.

Rebels have been using Hatay province as a base to send fighters, weapons and supplies into Syria. Turkey has also taken in about 300,000 Syrian refugees and has allowed the political wing of the Syrian opposition to gather in Istanbul.

The Syrian side of the border crossing near Reyhanli, where 17 people died in a February bomb blast that Ankara also blamed on Syria's government, was seized by rebels last year.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in Hatay, a centre of Turkey's Arab Alawite minority, which has strong links to Alawites over the border. Mr Al Assad and other members of the Syrian elite are also Alawites, while most Syrian rebels and refugees are Sunni Muslims, which form the majority of the Syrian population of 21 million people.

Mr Ediboglu said he told the government several times that locals in Hatay were concerned about the presence of militant Syrian rebels. "But they always replied that everything was under control."

Ismail Boyraz, general secretary of the Human Rights Association, a respected Turkish rights group, said a recent report by his organisation about the situation in Hatay noted that many locals were uneasy about the high number of armed foreign rebel fighters in the area.

"People with arms walked the streets, and many cars were sent into Syria [by Syrian opposition members] from Reyhanli," Mr Boyraz said yesterday. "There is no border anymore, no border security. The Syrian opposition people can come and go as they please."

Mr Boyraz said it was essential for local people that the government tighten border security and rein in Syrian fighters in Hatay.

"We are concerned about possible further incidents, he said. "The groundwork is being laid for a confrontation between Sunnis and Alawites."

tseibert@thenational.ae