x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Turks with links to Syria's intelligence agency arrested for bombings

Erdogan talks of trap being laid for Turkey in the twin explosions that killed 46 people in Reyhanli, but Syria denies any involvement. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

Relatives of Ahmet Uyan, 45, and Ahmet Ceyhan, 23, who were killed in car bombings in the Turkish border town of  Reyhanli, mourn at their graves.
Relatives of Ahmet Uyan, 45, and Ahmet Ceyhan, 23, who were killed in car bombings in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, mourn at their graves.

ISTANBUL // Nine Turkish citizens with suspected links to Syria's intelligence agency have been arrested for an attack that killed 46 people in a town near the Syrian border.

Syria denied it was behind the attack that raised tensions between the former allies to a new high.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pledged Turkey would react with "cool-headedness" and would not allow itself to be drawn into the "bloody swamp" of Syria's 26-month civil war.

"We will not fall into the trap that has been laid for us," Mr Erdogan said.

Besir Atalay, the Turkish deputy prime minister, said the nine suspects admitted to planting two bombs that ripped through Reyhanli's town centre on Saturday within five minutes of each other.

Mr Atalay described them as supporters of the Assad regime. "A terror organisation with links to the Syrian intelligence service has been uncovered," he said.

Several suspects were still on the run. The attackers used plastic explosives in two vehicles in front of the post office and the town hall.

Mr Atalay said 38 of the dead were identified yesterday, including 35 Turkish citizens and three Syrians. More than 55 wounded were still being treated yesterday.

Muammer Guler, the interior minister, said the suspected mastermind was among those arrested. He said the aim of the attack had been "to stir up the region".

Syria's information minister was indignant about the claims and blamed Ankara's foreign policy for the attacks. "No one has the right in Turkey to issue arbitrary accusations against Syria concerning the bombings … as Syria has not and will not conduct such behaviour," Omran Al Zoubi said.

Mr Al Zoubi said Turkey was responsible for the bloodshed because of Ankara's support for Syria's opposition.

Turkey had turned the border areas between the two countries into "international terrorist concentrations", he said, in reference to armed opposition groups.

Mr Al Zoubi also called Mr Erdogan a "killer and a butcher", adding the Turkish leader "has no right to build his glory on the blood of the Turkish and Syrian people".

The attack is expected to strengthen the resolve of Turkey to call for a US-enforced no-fly zone over Syria to hasten the fall of the president, Bashar Al Assad.

Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the bombings were part of a planned escalation of sectarian tensions by the government in Damascus.

"The footprints of those who perpetrated the Banias massacre are also to be found in yesterday's attack," Mr Davutoglu said. He was referring to the reported deaths of more than 100 civilians in attacks by government troops and militias near the Syrian coastal city of Banias last week.

Mr Davutoglu said the Syrian government was trying to raise tensions between Sunnis and the Alawite minority, of which Mr Al Assad is a member.

The Turkish border province of Hatay, where Reyhanli is located, is a centre of Turkey's Alawites. In the hours after the explosion, residents of Reyhanli attacked Syrians and cars with Syrian licence plates.

Some refugees reportedly decided to go back to Syria because of the hostility. There are about 30,000 refugees in Hatay, Mr Erdogan said.

"Banias was an ethnic-cleansing move aimed at driving local Sunnis away," Mr Davutoglu said. "Such a scenario may be put into force to steer Turkey and Lebanon towards something based on religious confrontation."

The Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak yesterday named a Turkish Alawite as the prime suspect in the Reyhanli bombing, but did not say where it obtained its information.

Turkish news reports also linked the man to the attacks in Banias. It was unclear yesterday whether he was among the nine suspects arrested.

Mr Erdogan is scheduled to travel to Washington on Thursday for talks with Barack Obama. A day before the Reyhanli bombings, Mr Erdogan accused the Assad government of using chemical weapons against the opposition and called for a no-fly zone over Syria.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, condemned the bombings and said that "we stand with our ally, Turkey".

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also condemned the attacks. The UAE stood beside Turkey "in the face of this cowardly criminal act", the ministry said.

Mehmet Sahin, a Middle East expert at Ankara's Gazi University, said the Reyhanli attack was likely to underline Mr Erdogan's expected call for US action in Syria.

"It will certainly strengthen Erdogan in his talks with Obama," Mr Sahin said.

He said he did not expect military action by Turkey in response to the attack in Reyhanli.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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