by Jamie Dettmer
Source: VOA News
GAZIANTEP, TURKEY — Twin blasts shook Ankara’s main train station Saturday morning just hours before a pro-Kurdish peace rally, claiming the lives of at least 86 people and wounding nearly 200 in the deadliest attack in Turkey’s recent history.
The explosions occurred near the main exit of the railway station in the Ulus district of Ankara, presumably to cause a high death toll among likely participants at the rally, which was being organized by labor and civil society groups.
Officials fear the death toll could rise.
There was chaos and confusion at the scene of the bombings with emergency workers, survivors and police mingled together trying to get some order.
Bodies lay on the ground and the yellow flags of the HDP and clothes were scattered around. Analysts suspect either the Islamic State militant group or Turkish nationalists opposed to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were behind the attack.
A ‘heinous attack’
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “condemned this heinous attack on our unity and our country’s peace.” He announced he is canceling the next three days of appointments to focus on the security challenge to Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the country should unite and act against terrorism, and called for three days of national mourning. He said there are indications two suicide bombers carried out the blasts. No group has claimed responsibility.
The government ordered local media not to broadcast video showing the first blast as it occurred.
The United States condemned what it called a “horrific terrorist attack.” In a statement, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the fact that the attack occurred ahead of a planned peace rally “underscores the depravity behind it and serves as another reminder of the need to confront shared security challenges in the region.”
The explosions ratcheted up tensions ahead of Turkey’s general election on November 1. The vote was called to break the political deadlock that resulted from the country’s election in June. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party said the bombers were aiming to create chaos before the November 1 election.
The target appears to have been the march calling for an end to the violence with the Kurdish separatist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, told reporters the death toll would likely be heavy. He compared the attack to two bombings earlier this year that struck in the mainly Kurdish towns of Diyarbakır and Suruç in southeast Turkey.
‘A huge massacre’
“We are witnessing a huge massacre. An atrocious and barbarian attack was carried out,” Demirtaş said.
Islamic State extremists said they were responsible for the explosion in Suruç in July, which killed 33 people and wounded 104. It triggered clashes between Turkish forces and IS militants, with Turkish soldiers and jihadists engaging in cross-border exchanges of gunfire and shelling near the Turkish border town of Kilis.
The PKK announced after the bombings Saturday that it is ordering its fighters to curb militants activities in Turkey and only respond when they come under attack from Turkish forces.
The Firat news agency reported the head of the PKK umbrella group said the decision was in response to calls from within and outside Turkey, and that the group should avoid acts that could disrupt parliamentary elections on November 1 and prevent a “fair and just” vote from being held.
The Turkish government had also used the Suruç bombing to justify launching airstrikes against Kurdish militant positions in northern Iraq and Syria, arguing it needed to combat all terrorist groups, Kurdish and Islamic. The airstrikes ended a four-year-long peace process between the PKK and Ankara.
HDP party activists Tweeted that there were “numerous dead and injured.” They also accused the police of attacking people trying to carry the wounded away. But a spokesman said the police were trying to empty the scene quickly to avoid more casualties in any subsequent explosions.
Coming just weeks away from next month’s parliamentary elections, Saturday’s bombings will likely add to a sense of foreboding across a country fearful of more spillover from the war raging in neighboring Syria and the clashes in southeast Turkey between Turkish forces and PKK militants.
Saturday’s blasts were several minutes apart; the first went off at 10:00 a.m., the local Dogan news agency reported. A video posted on social media captured one explosion that enveloped young marchers dancing and waving banners. Other video footage showed bodies lying on the ground and survivors trying to help the wounded.
Dorian Jones also contributed to this report from Istanbul. Mike Richman also contributed from Washington.