BEIRUT — Two bomb blasts ripped through crowds at a rally of peace activists in the Turkish capital Saturday, killing scores, in a reminder of the growing conflicts Turkey faces both at home and across the border in war-torn Syria.
The explosions in Ankara, which occurred just minutes and yards apart, killed 97 people and injured 246 more as they gathered to call for an end to the violence that has flared between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists in recent months.
Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally, shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran — all of which are embroiled in the conflict with the Islamic State. Turkish officials have confronted Russia over the latter’s violation of Turkey’s airspace in recent days, as Russian warplanes launch strikes against Syrian rebels, heightening tensions.
The renewal of Turkey’s decades-old struggle with the Kurds could destabilize the region further. Ethnic Kurds have also accused Turkish authorities of failing to protect them from what they say is violent spillover from Syria’s civil war.
In July, a suicide bombing targeting another rally of Kurdish peace activists, in the town of Suruc, killed 33 people and was blamed on the Islamic State. Turkey then joined the U.S.-led coalition carrying out strikes on the jihadists inside Syria and was braced for potential blowback from the extremists. Turkey hosts more than 2 million refugees from Syria, which the government says is a major source of political instability.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Saturday that there were “strong indications” the attack was carried out by suicide bombers, although there was no immediate claim of responsibility. He said the target was Turkish unity, democracy and stability.
“Early indicators would point to ISIS as the culprit,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ISIS is a common acronym for the Islamic State.
Either way, “this could well be Turkey’s 9/11,” Cagaptay said. “This is simply the worst terror attack in Turkish history.”
The United States also condemned the twin bombings as a terrorist attack. “It is particularly important at this time that all Turkish citizens recommit to peace and stand together against terror,” the State Department said in a statement. Turkey’s state-run news agency said Saturday that President Obama called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer his condolences for those killed in the attack. The report from Turkey’s Anadolu Agency said Obama told Erdogan that the United States “shared Turkey’s grief.”
The demonstrators, mobilized by a coalition of Turkish trade unions, had gathered outside Ankara’s main train station hours earlier to chant, wave banners and flags, and call for peace. The crowd included a mix of Kurdish and leftist Turkish activists, local media reports said.
A video that circulated on social media showed demonstrators linking arms to perform a traditional dance before a fiery explosion erupted in the background, sending the crowd into a panic. It was unclear whether the explosion was from the first or the second bomb detonated outside the station.
Images from the scene showed dazed and bloody demonstrators clinging to one another in the aftermath of the blasts. Bodies, some of them dismembered, lay on the street, covered with flags that protesters had brought to the march.
Tensions between police and demonstrators flared following the explosions, after activists accused security forces of blocking ambulances arriving to treat the injured. Turkey’s pro-democracy activists say they are fed up with a state that is quick to crack down on dissenters but cannot keep its citizens safe from terrorists.
In a live television broadcast, Turkish Interior Minister Selami Altinok said in response to a reporter’s question that he would not resign because there had been no security breach.
Turkish authorities announced a news blackout on images showing the moment of each blast; gruesome or bloody images; and “images that create a feeling of panic,” according to the Associated Press. The AP also reported that social media users in Ankara were unable to access Twitter after the blast.
Turkey, which media watchdog groups say has one of the world’s worst records on press freedom, often blocks access to Twitter and other sites for content the government deems inappropriate.
Also Saturday, the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a hard-line Marxist organization that has led the fight for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, called a temporary cease-fire to calm tensions ahead of general elections scheduled for Nov. 1.
The PKK has been locked in a struggle with the Turkish state for three decades to win more rights — and possibly independence — for Turkey’s more than 14 million Kurds. Kurdish communities also live in areas of Iran, Iraq and Syria, where PKK-linked militias have carved out territory and taken on the Islamic State. Some observers say the success of the Syrian-Kurdish militias in seizing land in Syria has worried Turkish officials, who fear it could inspire Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
In 2013, the PKK had agreed to withdraw its fighters from Turkish territory to militant hideouts in northern Iraq in exchange for expanded constitutional rights for Kurds. But each side soon accused the other of failing to implement the accords, and violence flared again this past summer. PKK militants attacked Turkish troops and security installations, particularly in the country’s volatile southeast. Turkey launched an air campaign against PKK positions in northern Iraq, killing scores, the militants said.
“I think with the attack [on Saturday], the perpetrators are hoping to induce the PKK, or its rogue and more radical youth elements, to continue fighting Turkey,” Cagaptay said.
In Suruc in August, Turkish authorities rounded up 18 young Kurdish men they accused of belonging to the PKK’s youth wing. The families of the detainees said they had all voted for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party in legislative elections in June and accused the Turkish government of punishing Kurds after the party won about 12 percent of the vote and gained seats in parliament.
The same elections denied Erdogan’s ruling party a governing majority for the first time since 2002. The results stunned the president’s Justice and Development Party, which subsequently failed to form a coalition government.
In August, Erdogan called the snap November polls. Critics say he hopes the elections will deliver his party the majority it needs to expand his presidential powers.
“Even if violence spirals up again, the attack will likely have a minimal impact on the election outcome,” Cagaptay said.
“Polarization over Erdogan trumps other concerns in Turkey,” he said.