Car bombings kill dozens in Turkish town near Syrian border

There were no immediate claims of responsibility

REYHANLI, Turkey -  

Two powerful car bombs killed at least 42 people in this town near Turkey’s border with Syria on Saturday, transforming downtown office blocks into smoldering husks in one of the deadliest attacks on Turkish soil in at least a decade.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the blasts, which came 15 minutes and barely a mile apart. The site of the bombings, in a town that hosts thousands of Syrian refugees, stirred fears that the civil war in Syria was slipping across its borders.

One of Turkey’s deputy Prime ministers, Bulent Arinc, explicitly called the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria a “suspect” in the bombings, without providing evidence, and raised the possibility of retaliation that could widen the war.

But other Turkish officials, including the prime minister, suggested the bombings might be an attempt to derail peace talks with the country’s own Kurdish rebels.

The bombings left one of Turkey’s highest death tolls in recent years. In 2003, Al-Qaeda-linked militants killed 57 people in Istanbul in two separate attacks. On Saturday, one of the bombs left a crater by Reyhanli’s yellow municipal headquarters, blasting out its windows and leaving files on aluminum shelves visible from the street. A nearby row of buildings, where apartments sat above stores, was completely destroyed.

The second bomb appeared to have been far more powerful, sheering the facade off office towers in downtown Reyhanli and sending the burned shells of cars and motorcycles crashing into stores.

If connected to the Syrian war, the bombings would be the deadliest spillover since the beginning of the uprising against Mr. Assad in March 2011. In October, shells fired from Syria killed five people in Turkey; the Turkish government blamed Mr. Assad’s forces. At least 14 people died in a separate episode when a car bomb exploded at a border crossing.

Speaking in Germany, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called for calm and said the timing of the attack was not a coincidence, given what he called growing momentum toward resolving the Syrian crisis, apparently a reference to a proposed peace conference on Syria announced by the United States and Russia.

Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also made a reference to the war in Syria. But he appeared to link the attack to his government’s talks with the P.K.K., the Kurdish separatist group, to end three decades of armed conflict. Nationalist groups as well as the government’s opponents are against the talks, claiming that they would destroy Turkey’s territorial unity.

“I want to send a message to my Reyhanli brothers — this is a sensitive process,” Mr. Erdogan said. “Those who cannot come to terms with this period — those who would not be positive about this air of freedom — might be involved in these acts.”

Many people in Reyhanli assumed the bombings were connected to the war a few minutes’ drive away in Syria, and worried that the explosions would stir violence between Syrian refugees and their Turkish hosts. After the bombings, Reyhanli’s streets emptied, as many Syrians shuttered their stores and hid in their homes, fearing retaliation after some residents started smashing the windows of cars from Syria, according to witnesses.

In a cafe near the outskirts of town where Syrian refugees gather, patrons all blamed the Syrian government for the explosion, saying it was aimed at causing trouble for Turkey, which has strongly backed the Syrian rebels in the civil war.

Near the blast site, a Turkish resident who refused to give his name said only that “Syrians” were responsible. A shout went up as emergency workers pulled a body, wrapped in a black bag, from the rubble of a store. A woman cried as she walked near a destroyed car, its trunk thrown open to reveal a baby seat inside, and the portrait of a child.

“Now, we’re busy with this,” another man said, as firefighters doused a smoldering store. “Tonight, the problems will start.”

Turkish officials have been especially concerned with the possibility that sectarian tensions that have come to define the civil war in Syria will spill over the border, and trouble ethnically-mixed regions of southern Turkey. There are also fears that the sheer numbers of Syrians in the country would stoke resentment: Around Reyhanli, some 25,000 Syrian refugees live among 90,000 Turkish citizens, according to local officials.

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