ANKARA: Thousands of people took to the streets of Ankara on Sunday to denounce the government and remember 95 people killed in twin suspected suicide bombings on a peace rally, as Turkey mourned its worst ever attack.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared three days of national mourning, with flags flying at half mast across the country, as questions grew over who might have planned the Ankara bombings.
Saturday’s attacks intensified tensions in Turkey ahead of snap elections on November 1 as the military wages an offensive against Islamic State (IS) jihadists and Kurdish militants. “A bomb into our hearts,” read the headline in Hurriyet daily. “The deeply outraged public is waiting to find out who is behind the incident,” it added.
Thousands of demonstrators filled Sihhiye Square in central Ankara, close to the site of the blasts, with some shouting anti-government slogans.
Several demonstrators blamed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the bombings, shouting “Erdogan murderer”, “government resign!” and “the state will give account”.
Erdogan condemned the “heinous” attack in a statement and cancelled a visit to Turkmenistan. But he has yet to speak in public after the bombings.
The premier’s office said that 95 people were killed when the bombs exploded just after 10:00 am (0700 GMT) as leftist and pro-Kurdish activists gathered for a peace rally outside Ankara’s train station.
It said that 508 people were wounded, with 160 still in hospital and 65 in intensive care in 19 hospitals. An AFP correspondent said that the scene of the blast was littered with ball bearings, indicating the explosions were intended to cause the maximum damage.
Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), one of the groups that called the peace rally, put the death toll at 128 in a tweet from their official account, but this figure was not confirmed by the government.
In an emotional address at the Ankara rally, its leader Selahattin Demirtas said that rather than seeking revenge people should aim to end Erdogan’s rule, starting with the November 1 legislative elections.
“We are not going to act out of revenge and hatred. But we are going to ask for (people to be held to) account,” he added.
The death toll surpassed that of the May 2013 twin bombings in Reyhanli on the Syrian border that killed over 50 people, making the attack the deadliest in the history of the Turkish Republic. With international concern growing over instability in the key Nato member, US President Barack Obama offered his condolences to Erdogan and solidarity “in the fight against terrorism”, the White House said.
The attacks drove a knife through the heart of the normally placid Ankara, which became the capital following the founding of the modern Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“This could well be Turkey’s 9/11,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute, referring to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks by al Qaeda in the United States.
“It took place in the heart of the Turkish capital, across from the city’s central train station, a symbolic landmark of Ataturk’s Ankara, as well as killing so many people,” he told AFP. Davutoglu said no group had claimed responsibility for the bombings and so far there have been no arrests by the authorities.
But the premier said groups including Islamic State (IS) jihadists, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) were capable of carrying out such an attack.
Davutoglu said there were “strong signs” the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers.
The attack came just under three months after a suicide bombing blamed on IS against peace activists in the border town of Suruc on the Syrian border killed 33 people.
The Hurriyet and Haberturk dailies reported that the elder brother of Abdurrahman Alagoz, who carried out the Suruc suicide bombing, could have been implicated in the Ankara blasts.
The Suruc bombing caused one of the most serious flare-ups in Turkey in recent times as the PKK accused the government of collaborating with IS and resumed attacks on the security forces after an over two-year truce.
The military hit back against the Kurdish militants, launching a “war on terror” and bombing targets in south-east Turkey and northern Iraq.
Turkey had on June 7 voted in legislative elections with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing its overall majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002.
However efforts to form a coalition were unsuccessful and Erdogan called new polls for November 1. All parties have now suspended campaigning in the wake of the attack.
With striking timing, the PKK Saturday announced it would suspend all attacks – except in self defence – ahead of the polls.
However the military in the last two days launched new air raids on southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, killing 49 suspected militants, the official Anatolia news agency reported.