ANKARA, Turkey — Crowds of angry mourners marched in central Ankara on Sunday to denounce Turkish authorities a day after nearly 100 peace activists died in the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. The twin bombings Saturday, which took place as thousands gathered for a peace rally, shocked the nation but also deepened divisions in a country already roiled by domestic and regional crises.
Turkish officials said they had launched an investigation into the attack, which they called an assault on “the unity of the country.” Opposition lawmakers condemned the authorities for failing to protect the demonstration, which was organized just weeks before the Nov. 1 general elections. At least 95 people were killed and more than 500 were injured, the Health Ministry said. But local politicians said the remains of 120 victims had been identified.
On Sunday, members of parliament from Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish minority and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) clashed with police as they attempted to lay red carnations at the bomb site. The demonstrators chanted against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who they called a “murderer” in the wake of the attack, media reports said.
Tensions between Turkey’s government and the country’s more than 14 million Kurds have flared in recent months , reigniting a decades-long struggle by ethnic Kurds to win autonomy from the Turkish state. The conflict has destabilized Turkey as it seeks to minimize violent spillover from the war in neighboring Syria. Some Turkish officials have said Islamic State jihadists are the primary suspects in Saturday’s bombings, while others have suggested that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish group, was responsible for the attacks. Turkey on Sunday carried out airstrikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq, where its fighters maintain bases. But the government said the strikes were part of an ongoing campaign to fight Kurdish militancy against the state.
“There were two suicide bombers [who carried out the attacks], but we have not identified them yet,” a senior Turkish official said on Sunday, adding that about a hundred surveillance experts were combing CCTV footage taken of Ankara over the past week. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about an ongoing terrorism investigation.
“We can’t say at this point which organization they belong to,” he said. “Obviously, we are concerned about the situation in Syria, and security forces are trying everything in their power to prevent terrorist attacks on Turkish soil.”
But critics say Turkey’s lax policies at the Syrian border are to blame for the rising violence. Authorities here have for years allowed extremists to cross freely into Syria to take up arms against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose rule Turkey opposes. The anti-Assad uprising began in 2011 and soon morphed into a bloody civil war. But the jihadists, who hold swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, have also established cells and militant infrastructure inside Turkey, security experts say.
In July, Turkey announced it would join the U.S.-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria. The move raised fears that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, would retaliate by using local recruits to attack Turkish cities.
“I think it is fair to say that Turkey has a returning ISIS fighter problem,” said Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Stein said the bombings, including one in July against Kurdish peace activists in southern Turkey, could be spillover from the Islamic State’s war with Kurdish militias in Syria, which are also linked to the PKK. Ethnic Kurds, who do not have a state of their own, live across areas of Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Kurdish militias, which emerged from the Syrian war and are known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have routed Islamic State fighters from large tracts of territory — often with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
It seems that “returning fighters are attacking Kurdish-linked groups, mirroring that of the ISIS-YPG war inside Syria,” Stein said. The attacks, he said, have “contributed to the ongoing violence in southeastern Turkey.”
Indeed, officials from the HDP — a left-leaning, pro-Kurdish party — said on Sunday that they believe Erdogan is attempting to sow chaos ahead of elections to gain more votes for his ruling party, the nationalist Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP has ruled Turkey’s government for the past 13 years but lost its governing majority after the HDP won 12 percent of the vote in legislative polls in June. It was the first time a Kurdish political party had won seats in parliament, and the victory set off months of failed negotiations to forge a coalition government. Erdogan, who has sought to expand his presidential powers, called in August for the November snap elections. Meanwhile, the PKK and Turkey resumed fighting amid the political chaos. Authorities arrested scores of HDP members across the country, the party said.
The philosophy of the AKP “is not based on the idea of citizenship; they divide the population between us and them,” said a Kurdish HDP official in Ankara who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the tense political environment.
“It’s reflected everywhere within the state — in institutions, the police,” he said. “They don’t see our party offices or our members or our demonstrations as things that should be protected.”