Bombing in Istanbul injures dozens on day that PKK ceasefire expires

Bombing in Istanbul main square injures dozens and rattles nerves. Nato to reduce its Kosovo force by half. Iraqi hostage situation ends in bloody tragedy with at least 52 killed. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Daniel C
1 November 2010

The bombing shook Taksim, a heavily trafficked tourist and shopping plaza in the city’s Beyoglu district, at 10:30 am According to a televised statement from Istanbul’s police chief, Huseyin Capkin, the unidentified male bomber attempted to access a parked police van in the square, however the explosives detonated before he could reach his target. Police presence is a common feature in the area which historically has been the location of large political gatherings and demonstrations. The bomber appears to have been the only person killed.

No group, organization, or persons have come forward to claim responsibility for the attack, nor has the government officially accused anyone, claiming the incident is still under investigation. ‘We don’t want to make a clear-cut judgment on such issues. We should not hurry,’ said Turkish Interior Minister Beşir Atalay. ‘There are early results regarding the type of bomb and the material used but our colleagues need to do further work.’

Nevertheless, there is growing speculation in the media and by many locals on the street that the bombing was the work of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned separatist group that has waged a bloody 26-year insurgency against the Turkish government under the banner of Kurdish autonomy and independence. The group, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey (along with the US, Nato, the EU, and others), has carried out similar attacks in the past, though not for quite some time. Fueling these suspicions was the timing of the attack, which coincided with the city’s ‘Republic Day’ parades, celebrating the anniversary of Turkey’s founding, and occurred on the same day that a two-month unilateral PKK ceasefire was set to expire.

On Monday a spokesperson for the PKK denied that the group had anything to do with the attack. This comes only days after a senior commander of the organization expressed his desire to extend the ceasefire indefinitely. The group has also declared that it would no longer target civilians. A massive number of people – almost 40,000, largely Kurdish civilians – have been killed due to the actions of both sides of the conflict since the outbreak of hostilities in 1984.

Istanbul has been targeted by other groups in recent years as well, including a deadly attack by al-Qaeda in November 2003, which killed 62 and injured hundreds, as well as a 2001 suicide bombing by the leftist militant group Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C).

At the time of the bombing Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was on a tour in the Mardin province of the country, a mostly Kurdish area in the southeast. ‘Those who want to stir up Turkey, destroy the air of peace, stability and security, will never be tolerated,’ he said. ‘These kinds of attacks will not stop Turkey reaching its goals of peace, brotherhood and development. We are together, we are brothers.’

The openSecurity verdict: It remains unclear who was responsible for the attack. No official announcement has been made by the Turkish government, however some have hinted off-the-record that PKK rebels are the main suspects in the investigation. ‘The techniques used in the attack and the progress made in the investigation so far shows a 90 percent probability that the PKK is responsible for the attack,’ one security official commented.

The PKK (or an offshoot of the group) may very well have been behind Sunday’s bombing. It would not be particularly surprising if this were the case given the timing of the attack and other emerging details, including the nature of the explosives used (A4, a type found on captured PKK members). Yet it is hoped that the pressures of popular outrage, fear, and feelings of insecurity caused by such an attack, mixed with the somewhat reflexive tendency of the Turkish government to blame the Kurdish rebels first, does not prevent the execution of an unbiased investigation.

Turkey has been witness to violent attacks over the years from a variety of groups and individuals, from leftist militant groups to Islamic extremists to ultra-nationalists. On the same day of the attack, police in various Turkish cities arrested sixteen members of DHKP/C, though it was not said whether it was related to the bombing, while twelve people with suspected links to al-Qaeda were arrested in Istanbul and Van province in Turkey only five days before Sunday’s attack. One hundred and fifty such people with al-Qaeda associations were arrested in January. A number of Turkish soldiers were killed in an Istanbul suburb last June when their bus was bombed. A group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons took responsibility.

If the investigation proves that the attack was indeed a PKK operation, the response by the Turkish government will be watched with a keen eye in some quarters. Certain government legal actions and policies regarding Kurdish activism have been scrutinized by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which today published a new report that examines the use of strict anti-terror laws to clamp down on public demonstrations in Kurdish regions and arrest and prosecute participants.

Nato intends to cut its Kosovo force by half

Nato troops in Kosovo, tasked with maintaining overall security since the end of the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbian forces in the ethnically-Albanian province, will reduce its 10,000-person peacekeeping force in half by next year. Major General Erhard Buehler, Nato’s commander there, made the announcement on Friday, saying that Kosovo has not seen the outbreak of major violence in years. ‘Local institutions are increasingly capable of assuming responsibility for security tasks,’ he said.

Simmering tension and violence still remain in the north, however, where the authority of the newly-independent and ethnically Albanian-dominated government of Kosovo is not accepted by the Serbian minority there. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, though the new state is not recognized by Serbia. The north has been witness to numerous clashes between the two ethnic groups in recent years, including ‘gunfire, explosives, hand grenades, even clashes and riots with intensive gunfire.’ In response, Nato has stationed more troops in the area. Buehler has said that the oncoming reduction will not affect Nato’s ability to maintain stability in the north.

Towards the end of the war, Nato had roughly 50,000 troops stationed in Kosovo. It hopes to have only 2,500 remaining in 2012, depending on the security situation.

Iraqi hostage situation ends with at least 52 killed, 67 wounded

An attack on a central Baghdad Catholic church on Sunday led to a hostage situation in which over 52 people were killed. The attackers, who burst into Our Lady of Salvation in Karrada, took at least 120 people hostage during the evening mass. Hours passed as Iraqi security forces surrounded the church and talked with the militants via mobile phone. The attackers, allegedly members of an organization associated with al-Qaeda, demanded the immediate release of Muslim women and al-Qaeda members they claimed were being imprisoned by the Egyptian Coptic Church.

Security forces soon stormed the building when the negotiations showed little progress. It is not clear how many hostages were killed by the hand of the attackers or as a result of the rescue operation. At least ten policemen and two priests were among those killed.

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