Turks sceptical about identity of Istanbul bombers


TURKEY:TURKISH POLICE continued yesterday to sift through the rubble of two bombs that exploded in a busy Istanbul suburb on Sunday evening, killing 17 people.

Investigators said they had security camera footage of two men carefully placing white plastic bags in rubbish bins that were later obliterated by two blasts.

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest in Turkey's biggest city since more than 60 people died in four car bomb attacks on British and Jewish targets in November 2003.

Early yesterday, Istanbul's governor linked the bombings to a Kurdish rebel group. "There appears to be a link with the separatist organisation," Muammer Guler said, referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. "We are working on that."

A former separatist group whose war against the Turkish state has resulted in 40,000 deaths since 1984, the PKK has bombed Turkish cities in the past.

Five students died when it targeted a military transport in a southeastern city in January.

Analysts note that similar high-explosive bombs were used in all three attacks and speculate that the PKK may have been seeking revenge for ongoing aerial and ground attacks against its bases in northern Iraq.

"The group is weak," says Sedat Laciner, a terrorism expert. "I think it is trying to bring itself to the top of the agenda again."

In line with its stance after earlier bombings, the PKK yesterday denied any responsibility for the attack. Scepticism of the official Turkish media line, meanwhile, appears to be felt even among those most affected. "They say it was the PKK," said Ibrahim Culhaci, whose wrecked shoe shop stands metres from where the second, bigger blast occurred. "But everybody in this country is playing funny games. The PKK could just be a tool."

Suspicions centre on the nature of the explosions. Sunday's bombing was the first ever in which one device appeared to have been used to attract a crowd which was then hit by a second.

A former army officer and terrorism expert, Nihat Ali Ozcan, insisted the cynical nature of the attack did not rule the PKK out: "That's a technique they could easily have learned from insurgents in Iraq."

Others find the timing of the explosion suspicious. It came just 12 hours before Turkey's top judges sat down to consider the unseating of an Islamic-rooted government a senior prosecutor has accused of trying to "establish a state system based on religious principles".

More importantly, the bombings also came just two days after a criminal court accepted the indictment of an 80-strong secularist-nationalist gang accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The gang, dubbed Ergenekon, is allegedly linked to the murder of a judge in 2006 as well as grenade attacks on a secularist newspaper. Its aim, according to the 2,500-page indictment, is to destabilise society.

Turkey has long been full of rumours of violent "patriotic" gangs. By offering harder evidence than before of links between violent groups at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, the Ergenekon case has sparked unprecedented soul-searching in a country that once saw the state as a largely benevolent father.

In private, everybody talks about alleged links to the PKK, Dr Laciner said.

"Ergenekon and the PKK have different aims, but they're both terrorist gangs. Of course they could work together."

A columnist for Turkey's most influential daily, Cuneyt Ulsever, went a step further. "Call me paranoid, but I think Ergenekon did this," he said. "These are wild times for Turkey, the wildest I have ever seen. God knows where we are going."