At least 86 people were killed when two suspected suicide bombers hit a rally of pro-Kurdish and leftist activists outside Ankara’s main train station on Saturday, weeks ahead of an election, in the deadliest attack of its kind on Turkish soil.
Bodies covered by flags and banners, including those of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), lay scattered on the road among bloodstains and body parts.
“Like other terror attacks, the one at the Ankara train station targets our unity, togetherness, brotherhood and future,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement, calling for ‘solidarity and determination’. Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu told a news conference that 86 people had been killed and 186 wounded, 28 of whom were in intensive care. The death toll could rise further.
Witnesses said the two explosions happened seconds apart shortly after 10 am as hundreds gathered for a planned march to protest over a conflict between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in the southeast.
“I heard one big explosion first and tried to cover myself as the windows broke. Right away there was the second one,” said Serdar, 37, who was working at a newspaper stand in the train station. “There was shouting and crying and I stayed under the newspapers for a while. I could smell burnt flesh.”
There were no claims of responsibility for the attack. But the Nato member has been in a heightened state of alert since starting a ‘synchronised war on terror’ in July, including air strikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq. It has also rounded up hundreds of suspected Kurdish and Islamist militants at home.
The attacks, in the scale of casualties, exceeded events in 2003, when two synagogues, the Istanbul HSBC Bank headquarters and the British consulate were hit with a total loss of 62 lives.
Authorities said those attacks bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda. Saturday’s attacks came as expectation mounted that PKK militants would announce a unilateral ceasefire, effectively restoring a truce that collapsed in July.
The government had already dismissed the anticipated move as an election gambit to bolster the HDP, whose success at June elections had helped erode the ruling AK party’s majority.
Hours after the bombing, the PKK ordered its fighters to halt operations in Turkey unless they faced attack. It said through the Firat news website it would avoid acts that could hinder a ‘fair and just election’ on Nov 1.
Footage screened by broadcaster CNN Turk showed a line of young men and women holding hands and dancing, and then flinching as a large explosion flashed behind them, where people had gathered carrying HDP and leftist party banners.
“We are faced with a very big massacre, a vicious, barbarous attack,” HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas told reporters. He drew a parallel with the bombing of an HDP rally in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on the eve of the last election in June and a suicide bombing blamed on Islamic State in the town of Suruc near the Syrian border in July, which killed 33 mostly young pro-Kurdish activists.
The interior minister said he could not confirm it was a suicide bombing. Authorities were investigating whether the blasts involved suicide bombers. An angry crowd booed and threw bottles when the health and interior ministers arrived in a convoy at the scene, and they were quickly driven away.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu cancelled his next three days of election campaigning and held an emergency meeting with the heads of police and intelligence agencies.
The United States condemned the Ankara attack, calling it a heinous terrorist attack on peaceful demonstrators. “In light of the ongoing violence in Turkey and the region, it is particularly important at this time that all Turkish citizens recommit to peace and stand together against terror,” the US State Department said in a statement. “We stand together in solidarity with the Turkish people and reaffirm our determination to continue to work with Turkey to combat the shared threat of terrorism.”
Separately, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed deep grief and sorrow over the Ankara bombings. He prayed eternal peace for the departed souls and commiserated with the people and government of Turkey, read a statement issued by the Prime Minister House.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2015.