At least 40 people were killed and 100 injured Saturday when two explosive-laden cars blew up in a small Turkish town near the Syrian border, as Ankara swiftly pointed the finger at Syria.
In the wake of the bombing, the deadliest attack in Turkey since the beginning of the conflict in neighbouring Syria, the deputy prime minister suggested President Bashar al-Assad’s government may have had a hand in the killings.
“With their secret services and armed groups, they are certainly one of the usual suspects to instigate and carry out such an outrageous plot,” Bulent Arinc told Turkish NTV television.
Stressing that an investigation had only just begun, Arinc recalled that Turkish authorities had already blamed Syrian secret services for a similar attack that killed 17 in February.
The bombings in the town of Reyhanli, just a few kilometres from the main border crossing into Syria, claimed 40 lives and left 100 injured, 29 seriously, Interior Minister Muammer Guler told the Anatolia news agency.
Rescuers were hunting for possible survivors buried underneath the rubble of buildings destroyed by the blasts.
Over a dozen ambulances and several air ambulances rushed to the scene to tend to the victims, NTV television said, adding that the town hall had suffered major damage.
A number of cars were also completely wrecked in the attacks which caused a power cut in the area around Reyhanli, according to local media.
Guler said the regional governor had been sent to the town “to put the necessary security measures in place” following the attack.
The attack sowed panic among residents in Reyhanli, a town of about 60,000 people, leading to tensions between youths and Syrian refugees living locally and forcing police to fire into the air to disperse the crowd.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on a visit to Berlin, said it was “not a coincidence” that these bombings occurred as international diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis were intensifying.
“It is not a coincidence that this should happen in a period where there is an acceleration of efforts on Syria in the whole world,” he told reporters.
It was too early however to make a clear judgement about the attack, he warned.
The United States and Russia, one of the few remaining supporters of Assad’s regime, pledged this week to relaunch efforts to solve the conflict, which the United Nations estimates has killed 70,000 people since March 2011.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon visit Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin, officials said earlier Saturday, amid a flurry of diplomatic activity.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who earlier this month branded Assad a “butcher” who must be held to account for the deaths of thousands of his people, is due to meet Obama in Washington on Thursday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that Paris condemned the attacks “in the strongest possible terms” while his British counterpart William Hague said the bombings were “appalling” and added that London would “stand with the people of Turkey”.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition said the attacks were designed to drive a wedge between Turks and Syrians.
“The Coalition sees these heinous terrorist acts as an attempt to take revenge on the Turkish people and punish them for their honourable support of the Syrian people (…)”
The bombings were “a desperate and failed attempt to sow discord”, the opposition said in a statement.
Reyhanli lies in southern Turkey near the Cilvegozu crossing opposite Syria’s rebel-controlled Bab al-Hawa border post, the busiest crossing between the two countries.
The border area has witnessed a number of deadly attacks as the conflict in Syria spills over into Turkey, whose government was once an ally of President Assad but has become one of its harshest critics.
In February, a car bomb attack at Cilvegozu which Turkey blamed on Syrian intelligence agents killed 17 people and wounded 30.
Earlier this month, one police officer was killed and six other people wounded when Syrians trying to cross into Turkey opened fire in a border buffer zone.
Saturday’s attack came as Turkey ramps up its rhetoric against Assad, with Erdogan accusing the regime in Damascus of deploying chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” set by US President Barack Obama.
“It is clear the regime has used chemical weapons and missiles,” Erdogan told NBC News on Thursday, without elaborating but calling for the United States to take more action against Syria.