Turkish authorities said Islamic State is the obvious suspect for a bomb attack in the country’s south that killed and injured dozens, as the conflict in neighboring Syria spills across the border.
The blast in the town of Suruc was Turkey’s deadliest attack in more than two years. Deputy premier Numan Kurtulmus said late Monday that the toll rose to 31 with the death of another victim from injuries, while 40 people are still being treated. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the investigation into what was probably a suicide attack is focusing on the jihadist group. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The bomb struck a group of young activists preparing to cross the Syrian border and help rebuild the Kurdish stronghold of Kobani, devastated during months of fighting with Islamic State last year. The choice of target highlighted the fault lines that the Syrian war has opened, both between Turkey and its allies and within the NATO member.
The U.S. has provided air support for the Syrian Kurds as they fought against Islamic State. Turkey, though, is locked in its own struggle with Kurdish rebels and has been unwilling to come to the aid of their Syrian kin, even during the bloody battle for Kobani. That led Kurdish politicians in Turkey to accuse the government of tacitly favoring the Islamists.
Members of the pro-Kurdish HDP party blamed Islamic State for Monday’s attack and renewed calls for a crackdown on extremists in the border region.
“The security forces in the area have been negligent,” HDP lawmaker Leyla Guven told Haberturk TV. “If an Islamic State militant can blow himself up in the middle of these people, everybody should be held accountable for this.”
The group has so far seen attacks inside Turkey, a key supply route for its forces further south, as counter-productive, said Aaron Stein, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“Any major provocation against Turkey risks bringing it more forcefully into the war,” Stein said. “So, this may not be an attack on Turkey per se,” but rather a strike against allies of the Syrian Kurds, he said.
The blast occurred just before a scheduled briefing by members of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed, a local group with ties to the Syrian Kurdish fighters. About 300 people were due to make the short journey to Kobani to help rebuild the Kurdish city, according to local media.
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Islamic State was driven out of Kobani in January, the biggest strategic defeat for the jihadist group since its lightning advance across northern Iraq and Syria in June last year. It renewed the assault on the city last month after the Kurds made further gains in the region, including the capture of a key border crossing with Turkey.
Syria’s Kurds have largely governed themselves since President Bashar al-Assad’s army withdrew from their region to fight on other fronts amid an escalating civil war. Turkey has expressed concerns that their de facto autonomy may encourage similar ambitions among its own Kurdish minority.
Monday’s attack is the deadliest in Turkey since twin car-bomb explosions killed more than 50 people in Reyhanli, also near the border with Syria, in May 2013.