REYHANLI, Turkey (AP) — Anti-government protests flared for a third day on Monday in Turkish town devastated by two powerful car bombs near the Syrian border, and some Turks accused their leader of putting the nation’s security at risk by backing the rebels fighting Syria’s government.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey will “not refrain” from responding to twin car bombings it has blamed on Syria, but that his government will be cautious and avoid being drawn into its neighbor’s civil war.
Saturday’s powerful bombings occurred in the border town of Reyhanli, a main hub for Syrian refugees and rebels. It was the bloodiest attack in Turkey in recent years and escalated tensions between the two former allies and raised fears the conflict in Syria could engulf Turkey.
The official death toll in the attacks stood at 46, but an Associated Press journalist in Reyhanli on Monday saw authorities recovering at least one more body from a hole in front of a post office that was targeted in the attacks.
The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied being behind the attacks. However, Turkish authorities said they have detained nine Turkish citizens with links to the Syrian intelligence agency in connection with the attacks, including a suspected ringleader.
About 200,000 Syrian refugees are sheltered in camps along Turkey’s border with Syria, while thousands more live outside of the camps, stoking resentment among residents in the ethnically mixed regions of southern Turkey. In Reyhanli, about 25,000 refugees are estimated to be living among the 90,000 Turkish citizens, and some citizens responded to the bombings by attacking vehicles with Syrian license plates.
For a third straight day on Monday, Turks took part in sporadic anti-government protests in the Reyhanli area, demanding that Erdogan resign.
On Monday, Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations, said in a commentary in the Zaman newspaper that Turkey’s government should seek U.S. help.
“What is left for Turkey is to convince the United States about a no-fly zone over Syria to be controlled by NATO forces, while increasing support to the Free Syrian Army,” the main rebel umbrella group, he wrote. “These will not cease the possibility of new terrorist attacks against Turkish targets. On the contrary, it is likely to increase risks of such violent acts.”
Analyst Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said regardless of who was behind Saturday’s attack, it is subjecting the Turkish leadership’s policies toward Syria to growing criticism.
“For Assad, this is an optimal option. He is the main beneficiary because he has made it very clear that if Syria implodes, the Syrian fire would consume neighboring states,” Gerges said. “If I were sitting in Damascus, I would be pleased to see the fire consuming neighboring countries.”
Erdogan is to travel to the U.S. on Tuesday evening for talks with President Barack Obama on Thursday that will focus on the Syrian crisis. The Turkish leader told NBC television in an interview last week that Turkey wants the United States to take on more responsibilities concerning Syria and that Ankara would support a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over the country.
Once a close ally of Syria, Turkey turned into one of the Assad regime’s harshest critics after the uprising began two years ago. Turkey is now a key supporter of the Syrian rebels, offering shelter for many senior and lower-ranking defected Syrian soldiers.
They include Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Syrian Military Council which oversees the Free Syrian Army, and regularly holds meetings in Turkey. Meanwhile, the country has become a major land route for shipments of weapons to Syria’s rebels.
Critics of Turkey’s government say its support of the insurgents has exacerbated the civil war in Syria and made Turkey an indirect party of the conflict and the target of Syrian attacks.
Saturday’s attack was the fourth incident threatening to pull Turkey into the conflict.
Last year, Syrian forces brought down a Turkish reconnaissance plane, and in February a bombing at a border gate between Turkey and Syria killed 14 people. Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. sent two Patriot air defense batteries to protect NATO ally Turkey, after artillery shell fired from Syria landed on the Turkish side.
Fraser reported from Ankara. Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed.