By Christopher Torchia
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
ISTANBUL, July 28 -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan served as a pallbearer at a funeral Monday for some of the 17 people killed by bombs in Turkey's biggest city, an attack the government blamed on Kurdish rebels who have targeted civilians in the past.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, immediately denied responsibility and attributed Sunday's attack to "dark forces" -- Turkish nationalists who allegedly seek to foment chaos to strengthen the political influence of the military.
No one has asserted responsibility for the bombings, and Turkey is home to a variety of violent movements besides the PKK, including radical Islamist groups and alleged coup plotters with ties to the secular establishment.
At the funeral, thousands of mourners surged around 10 coffins draped in the red and white Turkish flag at the foot of a mosque in Gungoren, a mostly residential neighborhood that houses many poor migrants.
Erdogan said the bombings -- the deadliest against civilians in five years -- appeared to be a reprisal for air raids on PKK positions in northern Iraq, as well as a cross-border ground offensive by the Turkish military in February.
"Unfortunately, the costs of this are heavy," Erdogan said. "The incident last night is one of them."
The twin blasts happened on the eve of a Turkish court's deliberations on whether to ban the Islamic-oriented ruling party for allegedly trying to undermine secularism, and the timing raised questions about whether there was a link.
The bombings and the legal challenge to the government highlight growing uncertainty in Turkey, where the government, which won a strong mandate in elections last year, is locked in a power struggle with secular circles in the military and judiciary.
Sinan Ogan, head of the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis in Ankara, noted the existence of splinter groups of Kurdish fighters, some more violent than others, and said that the attack may have been carried out without the knowledge of the entire rebel command.
He said Gungoren was a "softer target" that was easier to infiltrate for the PKK than central parts of Istanbul with more security.
"I think PKK is trying to say to Turkish officials: 'Look, we can hit you in bigger cities as well. We are already hitting you with land mines in the southeast, but this is not limited to that region.' "
The PKK denied involvement, and the pro-Kurdish news agency Firat quoted a rebel leader, Zubeyir Aydar, as saying: "We think this attack was carried out by dark forces. We extend our condolences to the families of the victims and to the Turkish people."
The United States and the European Union say the PKK, which seeks autonomy for Kurds, is a terrorist organization.
The bombings were unusual in that they were apparently intended to cause as many civilian casualties as possible, without any clear government or strategic target. Authorities said the vast majority of the 17 deaths and 150 injuries occurred when a curious crowd gathered after an initial, small blast. Then, the second bomb exploded.
Five of the dead were children. Anatolia news agency said one victim was a 12-year-old girl who rushed with her parents to their balcony to see what was going on after the first explosion.