ISTANBUL — A white BMW exploding in a ball of fire and killing at least 37 people in the heart of Ankara has sent Turkey deeper into a vortex of blood, violence, crisis—and there may be worse to come.
The explosive-filled vehicle ploughed into a passenger bus in the Kizilay district of Ankara at 6:34 p.m. local time (12:34 p.m. ET) on Sunday, at a moment when the area, a transport hub with a metro station close by, was crowded with many high school students heading home or on their way to see friends after the first stage of a countywide university entrance test.
Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu initially said 34 people were killed and 125 injured in the third major suicide attack in Ankara in five months. Media and officials blamed militant Kurds for Sunday’s carnage. The death toll was update to 37 on Monday morning.
Surveillance camera footage from the scene showed burning cars and burning debris raining down on people fleeing the area. The Hurriyet daily reported one or two suicide bombers in the BMW might have targeted a police post near the Guven Park in Kizilay, close to the Prime Ministry and the Justice Ministry, but failed to reach that point because it was protected by heavy barriers. On Monday, some Turkish press reports suggested a woman who had been on trial for PKK membership was one of those in the car.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but the way it was carried out was very similar to an attack on Feb. 17 that killed 28 people when another suicide car bomber rammed a military convoy close to the scene of Sunday’s attack. Hurriyet reported that the bomb and the triggering mechanism used on Sunday were similar to those used in February.
That attack was claimed by a group calling itself the Freedom Falcons (TAK), an organization close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting Ankara for more than three decades. Just hours before the blast at Kizilay, Turkish authorities in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey announced a new military offensive against PKK units in two districts. Media reports said up to 20,000 police officers and soldiers were to take part in the offensive in Nusaybin and Yuksekova.
The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has also committed deadly attacks in Turkey in recent months, killing more than 100 people in a twin suicide bombing in Ankara last October and 12 German tourists in an attack in Istanbul in January. But Sunday’s attack was almost immediately blamed on Kurdish separatists. Hurriyet reported the white BMW used in the bombing had come to Ankara from the Kurdish town of Viransehir on the border with Syria.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there was “concrete evidence” pointing to the perpetrators, but did not give details. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at a possible involvement of the PKK or affiliated groups by saying in a statement that “terrorist organizations and those using them as a tool” had turned on innocent civilians as they were “losing the fight against the security forces.”
That was a reference to the clashes in the Kurdish region that have been going on for months. Following a breakdown of peace talks between the Turkish state and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan last summer, the PKK launched a campaign to declare “autonomy” in Kurdish cities and towns, erecting barricades and digging trenches to keep out security forces. Ankara answered with a military campaign that has involved fierce house-to-house battles and has killed more than 1,000 rebels as well as several hundred civilians.
At the same time, Turkey has raised pressure on a Syrian-Kurdish group linked to the PKK that has carved out an autonomous region in northern Syria that it calls Rojava. Erdogan has said Turkey would not accept the creation of a Kurdish mini-state zone in Rojava, and Turkish artillery has shelled Kurdish positions in Syria repeatedly.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s legal Kurdish party, was the first to condemn Sunday’s attack, but signs are that political divisions will become even sharper. Erdogan promised a tough response and said Turkey would bring “terror to its knees.” The president and the government are asking parliament to lift the immunity of HDP leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag in order to put them on trial for supporting the PKK.
Abdulkadir Selvi, a prominent pro-government journalist, said on television that Turkey would have to “become used to living with terror for a while.” But critics say Turkey’s leaders are unable to protect ordinary citizens. “This inept government that fails to secure the well-being of the people must resign immediately,” columnist Yavuz Baydar wrote in the Ozgur Dusunce newspaper.
The U.S. embassy in Ankara warned of an impending attack only two days before the suicide bombers struck on Sunday, but Turkish security agencies were unable to prevent the carnage. Emre Uslu, a journalist critical of the government, wrote in an analysis for the Yeniyon news portal that the attacks in Ankara were the PKK’s answer to Turkey’s pressure on the Kurds in Syria (who have been working with the U.S. in the war on ISIS). “In attacking Ankara, the PKK is saying: ‘We can’t prevent you from shelling Rojava with artillery, but we can turn Ankara into a ball of fire.’”
In the hours following Sunday’s attack, a court in Ankara ordered a blanket ban on social media in Turkey to prevent people from sharing pictures and footage of the blast scene, but the ban appeared to have been lifted by Monday morning.