ANKARA, Turkey—Turkey lashed out Monday at Kurdish targets, bombing military positions in northern Iraq and rounding up dozens of militants at home after a suicide car bombing in the heart of the capital drew the country even deeper into the complex Syrian conflict.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were “strong indications” that Sunday’s attack was carried out by the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Davutoglu added that authorities had detained 11 people directly connected to the suicide bombing near a line of bus stops that killed 37 people. DNA tests were underway to identify the bomber and another body believed to be that of a person who assisted, he said, while a senior government official has said the bomber was a woman.
“There are very serious, almost-certain indications that point to the separatist terror organization,” Davutoglu said, referring to the PKK.
The attack further complicated Turkey’s place in the region as it battles a host of enemies across its borders including the Syrian government, Kurdish rebels in both Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State (ISIS), even after being forced to absorb 2.7 million refugees from the conflict.
Turkey is also battling the PKK, a Kurdish group fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for three decades. A fragile, 2½-year peace process broke down in July. Turkey blames the PKK, saying it was inspired by the success of the Kurdish militia forces in Syria against ISIS in the city of Kobani and elsewhere. The PKK blames Turkey for failing to deliver on promises.
More than 200 people have died in five suicide bombings in Turkey since July that were blamed either on the Kurdish rebels or ISIS. Sunday’s attack was the second suicide bombing in the capital: a Feb. 17 attack for which a PKK offshoot claimed responsibility killed 29 people.
“All five attacks are linked to the fallout of the Syrian civil war,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute. “Ankara’s ill-executed Syria policy … has exposed Turkey to great risks.”
Bill Park, a lecturer on Turkish foreign policy and security at King’s College London, said Ankara’s aggression toward the Kurds in Syria has angered Kurds inside Turkey and inspired attacks.
“Bombings in Turkey now look like a campaign and we have to assume that there will be more,” he said.
If the bombing was the work of a PKK-affiliated group, it could mark a shift in tactics, since the group had previously targeted Turkey’s security forces instead of civilians, said Otso Iho, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
He said, however, that “any potential escalation of PKK attacks on purely civilian or tourist targets would likely be somewhat tempered by the group’s awareness of the need to maintain its public image internationally.”
Turkey considers the PKK and the Kurdish militia in Syria to be one and the same, and has been pressing its U.S. allies to stop helping the Syrian Kurds. Washington considers the PKK a terrorist organization but has backed the Kurdish militia in Syria, which has been effective in fighting ISIS.
Both the U.S. and Turkey have generally good relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq; Monday’s airstrikes in northern Iraq targeted PKK bases rather than installations of the Iraqi Kurds.
Nine F-16s and two F-4 jets raided 18 PKK positions, including the Qandil mountains, where the group’s leadership is based, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Ammunition depots, bunkers and shelters were among the targets.
Police carried out raids in the southern city of Adana, detaining 38 suspected PKK rebels, while 15 suspected Kurdish militants were detained in Istanbul, the agency reported. In addition, authorities were searching for 10 suspects connected to the female bomber, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.
Turkey already had plans for large-scale operations against Kurdish militants. Anadolu said an operation in Nusaybin, on the border with Syria, began Monday, while tanks were deployed for another operation in the town of Yuksekova, near the border with Iraq. Authorities also imposed a curfew in the city of Sirnak, near the Iraqi border, signaling the military was preparing an offensive there as well.
Davutoglu vowed that Turkey’s struggle against the PKK would continue until the group is wiped out.
“After (the links) to the terror organization were determined, our Armed Forces conducted a comprehensive operation in northern Iraq. Our struggle against the terror points in Nusaybin and Yuksekova are continuing,” Davutoglu said. “We will not shy away from taking the necessary steps.”
Turkey has ordered curfews in flashpoints in the southeast since August in its fight against the PKK, which had set up barricades, dug trenches and planted explosives. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and human rights groups have criticized the military for scores of civilian deaths.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan canceled a visit Tuesday to Baku, his office said, adding that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev would instead travel to Ankara in a show of solidarity.
In a speech later Monday, Erdogan urged the government to “redefine” terrorism and terrorists so that legal action can be expanded against anyone supporting terrorism—including lawmakers, academics, journalists or activists.
His words appeared to be directed at a pro-Kurdish political party that he accuses of being the political arm of the Kurdish rebels, opposition journalists he accuses of supporting his foes, and academics who are facing prosecution for calling on the government to end the conflict against the PKK.
“Either they are on our side, or on the side of the terrorists,” Erdogan said.
The death toll in Sunday’s attack rose to 37 after three people died from their wounds. About 125 people were wounded, with 50 of them still hospitalized. Of those, 15 were in serious condition.
Some of the victims were buried Monday.
Anadolu said one of the dead was the father of Umut Bulut, who plays for Galatasaray, a top Turkish soccer team, Galatasaray. The father was on his way home after watching his son play when the blast occurred, the agency said, adding that the son didn’t learn of his death until he showed up for training Monday.
Also killed was police officer Nevzat Alagoz, who was heading home after working security for the match, according to Anadolu.
Another victim, 19-year-old engineering student Ozan Can Akkus, had lost a friend in an October bombing, the newspaper Hurriyet said.