ISTANBUL, Turkey – Trucks packed with explosives blew up at a London-based bank and the British consulate Thursday, killing at least 27 people and wounding nearly 450. The worst terrorist bombings in Turkey’s history coincided with President Bush’s trip to Britain and were blamed on al-Qaida.
Security forces were put on highest alert after the blasts at the high-rise headquarters of the HSBC bank and the British consulate occurred five minutes apart at about 11 a.m.
Among the dead was British Consul-General Roger Short, London’s highest-ranking diplomat in Istanbul, the Turkish foreign minister said.
The blasts followed two synagogue bombings Saturday – also blamed on al-Qaida – that killed 23 people, plus the two bombers.
Bush, at a new conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Thursday’s bombings showed terrorists’ “utter contempt for innocent life.”
“The terrorists hope to intimidate. They hope to demoralize. They particularly want to intimidate and demoralize the free nations. They’re not going to succeed,” Bush said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was scheduled to arrive in Istanbul on Thursday evening, described the attacks as “clearly appalling acts of terrorism” and suggested a link to the al-Qaida network. “I’m afraid it has all the hallmarks of international terrorism practiced by al-Qaida,” he said in London.
A man calling the Anatolia news agency said that al-Qaida and the militant Islamic Great Eastern Raiders’ Front, or IBDA-C, jointly claimed responsibility for attacks.
In Washington, however, a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States was not yet willing to put the blame directly on al-Qaida. Although al-Qaida involvement was still a possibility, it could be the work of groups that share a similar philosophy.
It was the worst single-day toll from terrorism in Turkey since 1977, when gunmen opened fire on leftists celebrating May Day, killing 37 people.
Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to defeat the terrorists and deplored the timing of the attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“Those who bloodied this holy day and massacred innocent people will account for it in both worlds,” he said. “They will be damned until eternity.”
Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said Thursday’s blasts were “most probably” the work of suicide bombers.
At about the same time Thursday, in Iraq, a deadly truck bomb exploded in front of a U.S.-backed Kurdish political party in the northern city of Kirkuk. Officials pointed to an al-Qaida-linked militant group, Ansar al-Islam, as being behind that blast.
The first Istanbul blast was at the Turkish headquarters of HSBC, the world’s second-largest bank, shearing off the facade of the 18-story building and shattering the windows of nearby high-rises.
Body parts, the charred shells of cars and broken glass were scattered around a 9-foot-deep crater in the streets outside the bank. Water gushed from the top floors of the building.
Bystanders bloodied and covered in dust looked dazed as they walked past lines of ambulances. Several people helped carry the limp bodies of victims.
Turkish army troops made a brief appearance on the streets in Istanbul, deploying on a major highway and standing guard beside police. Military ambulances were also seen.
At least a dozen Turkish soldiers, wearing helmets and camouflage uniforms and armed with G-3 assault rifles, stood by their jeeps near the HSBC headquarters. Troops later were withdrawn.
The second bomb, detonated about five minutes later and five miles away, ripped off the wall surrounding the garden of the British consulate in the Beyoglu district downtown.
At least 27 people were killed and nearly 450 wounded, Aksu said. TV reports initially said there were up to five blasts, but authorities later confirmed only two.
Straw said three or four British employees from the consulate had not reported to a roll call after the blasts.
Consulate chaplain Ian Sherwood told the BBC that Short was killed immediately by the blast. “Quite a few people have been killed – Turkish staff and some British staff. But I’m not able to say just yet who has been killed, other than the consul general,” he added.
Short, 58, served as consul general in Istanbul since 2001, was Britain’s ambassador to Bulgaria from 1994-98, and oversaw peace-building efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1999-2000.
“Once again we are reminded of the evil these terrorists pose to people everywhere and to our way of life,” Blair said. “Once again we must affirm that in the face of this terrorism there must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace, in attacking it wherever and whenever we can, and in defeating it utterly.”
Blair reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. “On the contrary, it shows how important it is to carry on until terrorism is defeated there as well,” he said.
Witnesses described horrific scenes of destruction.
“I thought somebody hit our bus from the back, then I saw black smoke rising,” said a sobbing Mehmet Altan, who was on a bus near the bank when the explosion occurred. “Cars were damaged all around us. I saw the charred body of a driver at the wheel,” said a sobbing Mehmet Altan.
Mehmet Celik, who was slightly injured, said a light brown pickup truck exploded in front of the HSBC headquarters.
HSBC employee Suleyman Karatas described “a bloodbath” after the explosion, according to the Anatolia news agency, with a number of the 600 bank workers wounded.
Near the British consulate, Hakan Kozan said the blast came from a white pickup truck. “I heard a slam on the brakes and 10 seconds later the explosion came,” Kozan told The Associated Press.
The consulate is located in a cramped, historic district frequented by tourists with shops, bars, movie theaters and restaurants. The nearby U.S. consulate was moved months ago to a more secure location in another district, and the FBI said it knew of no American deaths or injuries and is not directly investigating the blasts.
Turkey’s central bank said it was taking measures to prevent possible financial fallout from the attacks, and would intervene to prevent fluctuations in the currency. Turkey’s benchmark index dropped 7.37 percent after the attacks until the stock exchange was closed for trading.
European soccer officials postponed two international soccer matches scheduled for next week in Turkey because of the bombings.
The Istanbul State Security Court imposed a ban on news coverage of attacks, barring media from filming or broadcasting the images of attack sites, interviewing officials or reporting about the investigation. Turkish TV stations continued their broadcasts from the scenes and reported details of the attacks.
The deployment of the Turkish army troops was a significant step, since the military remains a powerful force that leads the secular establishment in this predominantly Muslim country.
It has in the past declared martial law when leftist and rightist militants fought in the streets of the nation’s largest cities, claiming up to 20 lives a day. The declaration of martial law preceded a 1980 coup when the military stayed in power three years and cracked down on terrorist groups, putting thousands of militants behind bars.
The military took over three times between 1960-80. The last time the military intervened in politics was in 1997, when they forced out a religious-oriented government without staging a coup.
On Wednesday, authorities arrested six people in connection with the synagogue bombings. The two suicide bombers were identified as Turks. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said they had visited Afghanistan and that investigators were pursuing al-Qaida links.
On Sunday, Osama bin Laden’s terror network claimed responsibility for the bombings in messages to two Arabic-language newspapers; it was not possible to authenticate those claims. The Islamic Great Eastern Raiders’ Front also claimed responsibility, but Turkish authorities said the attack was too sophisticated for that group.
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