The massive double bombing in the southern town of Reyhanli on Saturday also injured 155 people in the bloodiest single incident yet of cross-border spillover from the Syrian war. Nine Turkish citizens have been detained in connection with the blast, Turkish authorities said Sunday, and one of them is suspected of being the mastermind.
Interior Minister Muammer Guler told reporters that the nine had ties to Syrian intelligence agencies.
“This incident was carried out by an organization . . . which is in close contact to pro-regime groups in Syria and I say this very clearly, with the Syrian mukhabarat,” he said.
In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi denied the allegations and instead said Turkey bears responsibility. “Syria did not commit and would never commit such an act, not because we don’t have the capacity, but because our values would not allow that,” he said in comments broadcast by state media.
Noting that the bombing came just days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due in Washington for talks with President Obama expected to focus on Syria, Zoubi implied that Erdogan may have carried out the attack to persuade the United States to intervene in Syria.
“It is Erdogan who should be asked about this act. . . . He and his party bear direct responsibility,” he said. “Why this timing? Why these attacks, just days before the meeting between Erdogan and Obama? Does he . . . want to incite the United States by telling him his country has been attacked?” Zoubi said.
Erdogan said the bombing had been intended to drag Turkey into the Syrian conflict, but he indicated that Turkey had no intention of becoming embroiled.
Turks should be “vigilant . . . and level-headed in the face of each provocation aimed at drawing Turkey into the Syrian quagmire,” he told a rally held to commemorate Mother’s Day in Istanbul.
During a visit to Berlin, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed the international community’s inaction on Syria, and said Turkey would press for a more robust response to the crisis from the United Nations.
“The latest attack shows how a spark transforms into a fire when the international community remains silent and the U.N. Security Council fails to act,” he said. “It’s unacceptable for the Syrian and Turkish people to pay the price for this.”
Reyhanli, which lies about five miles from a key border post with Syria, has become an important hub for the Syrian opposition, hosting aid outfits, rebel fighters, arms dealers and refugees. But the vast majority of the victims of the blasts, which targeted the post office and the municipal headquarters, were Turkish. Officials said 35 of the bodies had been identified as Turks, three were Syrians and the rest were still being identified.
The bombing threatens to stir local tensions over the presence of some 325,000 Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, most of them housed in camps dotted along the 550-mile border. After the bombings, there were reports that Turks armed with sticks had taken to the street to hunt down Syrians.
The tensions have been most pronounced in the province of Hatay, where Reyhanli is located and which was once a part of Syria, giving it a majority Arab population. While Sunnis in the area have mostly welcomed the Syrians fleeing the war, the province’s Alawites, who belong to the same minority sect as Assad, have grown increasingly angry at the strain the influx has placed on their communities.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels on Sunday released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers they had abducted last week in the Golan Heights, the Associated Press reported.