ISTANBUL — They came from all over Turkey, some even brought their families along. They carried banners calling for peace in the Kurdish region and gathered on the square facing the main train station in Ankara, waiting for the start of a march through the streets of the Turkish capital. Some were dancing a traditional Turkish dance while they waited. Then a huge explosion, followed by a second one moments later, ripped through the crowd. Cameras caught a flame shooting high into the air.
At least 86 people were killed and almost 190 injured on Saturday in the deadliest terrorist attack in the 92-year history of the Turkish republic. The government said the blasts targeted national unity and declared three days of official mourning, but some victims blamed the intelligence services, while others blamed the victims. And behind it all are the shadows of the so-called Islamic State and the PKK.
What we know is that two suicide bombers blew themselves up on the square in front of the station. They had packed metal balls into their bombs to increase the impact. One victim was a nine-year-old child. Many Turks expressed horror, outrage and a sense of hopelessness over the event. “Somebody please save us,” said Hulya Avsar, a popular singer.
Faruk Bildirici, a journalist with the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, said he was talking to colleagues in front of the train station when the blast happened and he threw himself to the ground. “When we got back up, we saw body parts that had landed right in front of the station entrance,” he wrote. “Ripped off arms and legs were strewn across the street, people were screaming, a man carried a severely injured girl in his arms.”
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, which came three weeks before the country goes to the polls on November 1. Prosecutors said they were trying to identify the suspected suicide bombers using DNA tests. But the lack of concrete evidence pointing to the people behind the attack did not stop both sides in Turkey’s bitterly divided political scene accusing each other, setting the scene for what is likely to be a tense election period in a nation that is already rattled by the conflict in neighboring Syria.
At the scene of the blast, the shock turned to anger against the government, which was accused by some of having played a role in the attack. Demonstrators assaulted a police car, while police officers shot in the air to disperse an angry crowd. Several government ministers who visited the scene had to beat a hasty retreat after being booed and pelted with water bottles.
The Ankara rally was called by trade unions and opposition parties, among them Turkey’s legal Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to protest against a fresh wave of violence in the Kurdish region that has killed several hundred people since late July. Back then, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), seen as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the West, started a series of new attacks against security forces, triggering a forceful military response by Ankara.
Critics accuse the Turkish government of deliberately fanning tensions with the PKK in order to attract right-wing voters ahead of the November election. In that context, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas called the Ankara murders a “massacre” and an “attack by our state on our people.” He added President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu need not bother to call him to express their condolence, because he would refuse to talk to them.
An HDP party spokesman said the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the spot where the party’s representatives of the march were supposed to be gathering. An HDP candidate running for a seat in the upcoming election was among the dead.
Government critics said the country’s security forces had many questions to answer. Lutfu Turkkan, a right-wing lawmaker in parliament, said the spotlight was on Turkey’s main intelligence agency MIT. The Ankara attack “was either a failure by the intelligence service, or it was done by the intelligence service,” he wrote on Twitter.
The government rejected the accusations. Interior Minister Selami Altinok said he saw no reason to resign because there were no signs of a failure by the security apparatus in the run-up to the bombing. Pro-government journalist Fatih Tezcan tweeted he suspected the HDP had bombed its own supporters in order to gain more votes on November 1.
Observers agreed that the Ankara blast was probably linked to a decision by the PKK rebels to suspend hostilities with Ankara. The PKK had hinted in recent days that it would declare a new ceasefire in order to boost the HDP’s election chances. The people behind the attack wanted to “prevent the ceasefire” from coming into effect, respected journalist Kadri Gursel tweeted. The PKK’s ceasefire announcement became public shortly after the attack, but the decision by the rebels had probably been taken before.
Kurds suspect the state of conducting a dirty war. HDP officials are certain the security apparatus played a role in the bomb attack in the town of Suruc close to the Syrian border on July 20, when a Turkish supporter of the so-called Islamic State blew himself up during a meeting of Kurdish and leftist activists there, killing more than 30 people. HDP leader Demirtas said there had been no thorough investigation after the Suruc attack. “There won’t be one today either,” he said. Demirtas added not a single official had resigned despite a spate of deadly attacks directed against his party. “That means they must be very happy.”