REYHANLI, Turkey — In one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey in recent years, two car bombs exploded near the border with Syria on Saturday, killing 43 and wounding 140 others. Turkish officials blamed the attack on a group linked to Syria, and one called the neighboring country’s intelligence service and military “the usual suspects.”
The blasts, which were 15 minutes apart and hit the town of Reyhanli’s busiest street, raised fears that Turkey could increasingly be drawn into Syria’s brutal civil war.
Turkey already hosts Syria’s political opposition and rebel commanders, has given shelter to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and in the past retaliated against Syrian shells that landed in Turkey.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said the assailants were from Turkey, but were linked to Syria’s intelligence service.
“We have to a great extent completed our work toward identifying the assailants,” he told reporters. “We have established that the organization and assailants have links to the pro-regime mukhabarat (intelligence) organization.” He did not name the group.
Earlier, another deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, said: “Our thoughts are that their mukhabarat and armed organizations are the usual suspects in planning and the carry- ing out of such devilish plans,” he said.
Arinc said the attacks were still being investigated, but that if it’s proven that Syria was behind the attack, Turkey would “do whatever is necessary,” without specifying if that included military action.
One of the car bombs exploded outside the city hall while the other went off outside the post office. Reyhanli, a main hub for Syrian refugees and rebels in Turkey’s Hatay province, is just across the border from Syria’s Idlib province.
Images showed people frantically carrying the wounded through the rubble-strewn streets to safety. Black smoke billowed from a tall building.
The explosions came days before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to travel to the U.S. for talks, which are expected to be dominated by the situation in Syria. The car bombings also follow allegations by Erdogan the Syrian regime has fired about 200 missiles tipped with chemical weapons.
Syrian mortar rounds have fallen over the border before, but if the blasts turn out to be linked to Syria it would be by far the biggest death toll in Turkey related to its neighbor’s civil war.
Syria shares a more than 500-mile border with Turkey, which has been a crucial supporter of the Syrian rebel cause. Ankara has allowed its territory to be used as a logistics base and staging center for Syrian insurgents.
Atalay said 43 people were killed and 140 others were wounded in the blasts. There was no immediate information on the identities or nationalities of the victims.
The bombings “will increase the pressure on the U.S. president next week to do something to show support to Turkey when Erdogan visits him in Washington,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute. “Washington will be forced to take a more proactive position on Syria, at least in rhetoric, whether or not there is appetite for such a position here.”
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said the attack may force Turkey to take action.
“It should be a defining moment for Turkey,” Shaikh said. “It has been supporting the rebels, and there has been strong rhetoric. But this may be a moment where it really has to assert itself — if it is the Assad regime (behind the bombings), and it is quite conceivable it is.”
Turkey’s opposition criticized the government’s policy on Syria, saying its active support of the rebels had put the country’s security at risk.
The force of Saturday’s explosions gutted some buildings, and the charred shells of cars littered the streets.
“Three buildings partly collapsed and became unusable,” Talat Karaca, who witnessed the second explosion from his rooftop, told The Associated Press by telephone. “We couldn’t approach the scene for a long time because of the blaze.”
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a statement condemning the “murderous attack” in Reyhanli and said Washington “stands with the people and government of Turkey to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara. Associated Press writers Ezgi Akin in Ankara, and Bassem Mroue, Yasmine Sakher and Karin Laub in Beirut contributed to this report.