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Bomb Attacks on British Targets in Turkey Kill 27

Explosions at consulate and bank leave 500 hurt days after blasts at two synagogues. Bush and Blair pledge to stand firm in war on terror.

November 21, 2003|Douglas Frantz And Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Two truck bombs exploded outside the British Consulate and the headquarters of the London-based HSBC bank in Istanbul on Thursday morning, killing at least 27 people, injuring more than 500 and spreading fear across a city already reeling from similar attacks five days earlier.

Turkish and British officials immediately blamed the suicide attacks on Islamic extremists and said the devastating blasts bore the trademarks of Al Qaeda and the organizations that fall under its terrorist umbrella.

Aimed at British interests, the attacks coincided with President Bush's state visit to Britain, where he defended the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"It shows how important it is to carry on until terrorism is defeated," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at a news conference. "And I can assure you of one thing -- that when something like this happens today, our response is not to flinch or give way or concede one inch. We stand absolutely firm until this job is done -- done in Iraq, done elsewhere in the world."

Bush agreed. "Great Britain, America and other free nations are united today in our grief and united in our determination to fight and defeat this evil, wherever it is found," Bush said.

A member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and aspirant to the European Union, Turkey may have been targeted because the predominantly Muslim country has a secular, moderate government. It is also a close ally of the United States and Israel. On Saturday, two Istanbul synagogues were attacked. Twenty-five people died, including the two suicide bombers.

Turkey has continued to voice support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the war on terrorism and was one of the few countries to offer troops for Iraq, although the proposal was scuttled when Iraqis objected to the presence of Turkish soldiers.

The government, led by an Islamist party, will be under great pressure to arrest Islamic militants to prove itself to U.S. and international partners as well as to Turkey's restive secular military. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately vowed a broadened crackdown, saying, "Turkey will be like a fist."

Officials were quick to point to the Al Qaeda network, saying the tactics were similar to past attacks.

"It has all the hallmarks of the international terror practices by Al Qaeda and associated organizations," Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, said in London before leaving for Turkey, where he visited the ravaged consulate Thursday.

The massive blast at the consulate leveled the security checkpoint and a cafeteria within the stately complex in Beyoglu, one of the city's busiest pedestrian districts and a popular neighborhood for foreign tourists.

Chunks of debris and shards of glass rained over 10 square blocks, inundating area hospitals with victims. At least 14 people were killed in that attack, including Roger Short, the British consul general, and three Turkish policemen.

At the HSBC headquarters five miles north, the glass facade was blown off the 18-story building and flying glass injured dozens in the bustling Levent business district, while several cars were engulfed in flames.

At least 13 people were believed killed there, including employees of the bank.

As with Saturday's attacks, most of the victims Thursday were Turkish Muslims.

Terrorism experts said they were surprised that two well-coordinated attacks could be launched so soon after those on Saturday. But some experts also said Turkey had a ready supply of Islamic extremists.

"There are hundreds of Turks who went to Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan for training, who fought in Chechnya, and no one was really paying attention to them," said Hasan Koni, an advisor to Turkey's National Security Council and a political scientist at Ankara University.

A senior Turkish security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities were extremely worried that the bombings were the start of a sustained campaign to destabilize the country. He warned that U.S. targets could be next.

"We may expect an attack in Ankara, Istanbul or any American target in Turkey," he said.

The U.S. Consulate warned its citizens Thursday that more attacks were possible and advised them to stay away from shopping centers and Western businesses.

Initial reports from Turkish security officials said the explosives were concealed in two trucks and were detonated as the vehicles were driven past the consulate and the bank building, both of which are in congested areas where traffic moves slowly.

Standing in front of Taksim hospital near the consulate, amid grieving relatives and grim-faced rescue workers, Turkish Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said the attacks were similar to the synagogue explosions.

"Pickups loaded with explosives were driven by suicide attackers," he said.

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