Archive for July 4, 2016

June 30, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — When he took office in May, Turkey’s prime minister declared it was time for the country to put its international affairs in order and reclaim its place as an oasis of stability in a war-torn region. Turkey was trying to do just that — mending fences with both Israel and Russia only this week — when suicide bombers hit its main airport, throwing those plans into disarray.

Tuesday’s gun-and-bomb attacks killed more than 40 people, including at least 10 foreigners, and highlighted Turkey’s precarious position on the borders of Syria and Iraq. Just a day earlier, Turkey and Israel had announced a deal ending six years of acrimony, and Turkey had expressed regret to Russia over its downing of a warplane, paving the way for reconciliation with Moscow.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim pinned the airport attack on the Islamic State group, which is battling an array of enemies in Iraq and Syria including Western powers and Russia. “It is meaningful that this heinous attack came at a time when we have become successful in the fight against separatist terrorism… and at a time when we started a process of normalizing ties with our neighbors,” Yildirim said.

Sabah newspaper, which is close to the government, called the attack a “treacherous ambush on peace,” saying it came as Turkey was spearheading peace initiatives that would “change regional balances.”

While any direct link between the attack and Turkey’s reconciliation efforts is uncertain, there is no doubt that it has a destabilizing effect on a country where a renewed conflict with Kurdish separatists and a spate of attacks by the IS group have kept tourists and investments away. Turkey’s crackdown on dissenting voices and media freedoms has also hurt its international standing.

Giray Sadik of Ankara’s Yildirim Beyazit University said such attacks are usually pre-planned, making any connection to Monday’s normalization moves unlikely. But, he said, “it will harm Turkey’s image. It came at a time when (Turkey) was hoping that the rapprochement with Russia would revive its tourism industry.”

The charm offensive with Israel and Russia follows several years of foreign policy bungles that crippled Turkey’s influence in the region and left it with few friends. Relations between Israel and Turkey began to decline after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has Islamist roots, became prime minister in 2003 and got even worse when he criticized Israeli operations against Palestinians. They reached an all-time low over Israel’s 2010 raid against a Turkish ship aiming to breech the blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks, including a dual American citizen, were killed. Another later died of his wounds.

This week’s agreement with Israel will now lead to an exchange of ambassadors, a revival of economic ties and new energy deals. The same day that deal was announced, Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin expressing regret over an incident seven months ago where Turkey shot down a Russian jet on a mission in Syria, triggering a slew of Russian sanctions that have dealt a blow to the Turkish economy. In a sign of warming ties, the two leaders talked by phone Wednesday and agreed to meet face-to-face during a G-20 summit in China.

In the Syrian conflict, Turkey has been accused of supporting Jihadist groups in a bid to bring about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster, a move critics say helped exacerbate the civil war and cause the refugee crisis. Turkey, which has taken in some 3 million Syrian refugees, strongly rejects the accusation.

Turkey also has turbulent relations with the European Union over the implementation of a deal to stem the flow of migrants and is frustrated with the United States over its support of a Syrian Kurdish militia. The latter plays a key role in the U.S. fight against IS in Syria, but Turkey considers it a terror organization because of its affiliation with Turkey’s Kurdish rebels.

Svante Cornell, Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, said the airport attack is an indication of how difficult it will be for Turkey to clean up years of foreign policy failures.

“Turkey inserted itself in the affairs of the Middle East, threw its support behind non-governmental armed groups, taking sides in various conflicts without seriously considering the consequences,” Cornell said. “If you use these kinds of groups they have a tendency to turn back and bite and Turkey is now paying the price for its decisions.”

June 30, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — The three suicide bombers who attacked Istanbul airport were a Russian, an Uzbek and a Kyrgyz, a senior Turkish official said Thursday, hours after police carried out sweeping raids across the city looking for Islamic State suspects. Tuesday’s gunfire and suicide bombing attack at Ataturk Airport killed 43 people and wounded more than 230 others.

The day opened with police conducting raids on 16 locations in Istanbul, rounding up 13 people suspected of having links to the Islamic State group, the most likely perpetrator of the attack at one of the world’s busiest airports. The manhunt spanned three neighborhoods on the city’s Asian and European sides.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, did not name the attackers. “A medical team is working around the clock to conclude the identification process,” the official told journalists, noting that extensive soft-tissue damage had complicated efforts to identify the attackers. The official could not confirm Turkish media reports that the Russian national was from the restive Daghestan region.

From the start, Turkish authorities have said all information suggests the attack was the work of IS, which this week boasted to have cells in Turkey, among other countries. There was no immediate claim of responsibility by the militant group, which used Turkey as a crossing point to establish itself in neighboring Syria and Iraq. The group has repeatedly threatened Turkey in its propaganda publications.

Interior Minister Efkan Ala said 43 people were killed in the attack, including 19 foreign nationals. Of those who were wounded, 94 remained in hospital, the Istanbul Governor’s office reported. Unconfirmed details of the attack continued to emerge on Turkish media.

The private Dogan news agency said the Russian attacker had entered the country one month ago and left his passport in a house the men had rented in the neighborhood of Fatih. The Karsi newspaper, quoting police sources, said the trio was part of a seven-person cell who entered Turkey on May 25. The assailants raised the suspicion of airport security on the day of the attack because they showed up in winter jackets on a summer day, several media reported.

The Dogan news agency broadcast footage of the Istanbul police raids. It showed a special forces police team entering a building carrying what appeared to be a steel shield to protect from possible counterattack during the raid.

In separate large-scale police operations, nine suspects believed to be linked to the IS group were also detained in the coastal city of Izmir. It was not clear if the suspects had any links to the carnage at the airport.

The Izmir raids unfolded simultaneously in the neighborhoods of Konak, Bucak, Karabaglar and Bornova, according to Anadolu Agency. Police seized three hunting rifles and documents relating to IS. The report said the suspects were in contact with IS militants in Syria and were engaged in “activities that were in line with the organization’s aims and interests,” including providing financial sources, recruits and logistical support.

Days before the Istanbul attack, on June 25, security forces killed two suspected Islamic State militants who were trying to cross the border illegally and ignored orders from security forces to stop, according to local media reports.

One of the two militants was wanted by Turkey on suspicion that he would carry out suicide attacks in the capital Ankara or in the southern city of Adana, Anadolu said. Turkey shares long, porous borders with both Syria and Iraq, where IS controls large pockets of territory. The government has blamed IS for several major bombings over the past year, including in the capital Ankara, and on tourists in Istanbul.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed reporting.

June 27, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Turkey’s president has apologized for the downing of a Russian military jet at the Syrian border, the Kremlin said Monday, an unexpected move that could open the way for easing a bitter strain in Russia-Turkey ties.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin comes seven months after the incident, which has triggered a slew of Russian sanctions that have dealt a severe blow to the Turkish economy. The formal apology, which the Kremlin had requested, came hours after Turkey and Israel announced details of an agreement to repair their strained relations.

The Kremlin quoted the Turkish leader as offering his condolences to the killed pilot’s family and saying: “I’m sorry.” “I share their pain with all my heart,” Erdogan said in the letter, according to the Kremlin. “We are ready to take any incentive to help ease the pain and the burden of inflicted damage.”

Erdogan’s office was keen to describe the letter as an expression of regret, not an apology. “In the letter, the president stated that he would like to inform the family of the deceased Russian pilot that I share their pain and to offer my condolences to them. May they excuse us,” spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said.

In a speech delivered during a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner in Ankara, Erdogan said he had written to Putin expressing his “regrets” over the incident and reminding the Russian leader of the “potential for regional cooperation.”

“I believe that we will leave behind this current situation which is to the detriment of both countries and rapidly normalize our relations,” Erdogan said. Putin had denounced the downing of the Russian warplane at the Syrian border on Nov. 24 as a “treacherous stab in the back.” Russia rejected the Turkish claim that the plane had violated its airspace, and responded by deploying long-range air defense missiles to its base in Syria, warning that they would destroy any target posing a threat to Russian aircraft.

The plane’s downing came amid a rift between Moscow and Ankara over Syria, where they backed the opposing sides in the conflict. Moscow moved swiftly to ban the sales of package tours to Turkey, which had depended heavily on the Russian tourist flow; banned most of Turkey’s food exports; and introduced restrictions against Turkish construction companies, which had won a sizable niche of the Russian market.

Erdogan, who often has been compared to Putin because of both leaders’ intolerance to dissent and biting criticism of the West, had apparently miscalculated the plane incident’s fallout for the Turkish economy.

The letter comes at a moment when Ankara’s relations with the EU and the U.S. have also been strained over the migrant crisis, human rights issues and other disputes. Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said recently that Turkey wants to increase the number of its friends and decrease the number of its enemies, and the letter came on the same day that Turkey and Israel released details of a deal to reappoint ambassadors and end six years of acrimony over Israel’s 2010 deadly raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship.

Lifting the Russian economic penalties was essential for Erdogan, who has found himself under pressure both at home and abroad. Since the incident, Erdogan and his ministers have continuously spoken in favor of normalizing ties with Moscow, but Putin made it clear that he expects a formal apology and compensation.

Erdogan has now offered both, according to his letter, excerpts of which were released by the Kremlin. Erdogan’s office also said that the Turkish leader called on Putin to restore traditional friendly relations between Turkey and Russia and work together to address regional crises and jointly combat terrorism.

The Kremlin said that the letter added that the Turkish authorities were conducting a probe against a Turkish ultranationalist militant, Alparslan Celik, who allegedly shot and killed the plane’s pilot as he was descending by parachute. The plane’s co-pilot survived and was rescued, but a Russian marine was killed by militants during the rescue mission near the border.

On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is set to visit a ministerial meeting of a grouping of the Black Sea nations hosted by Russia in Sochi, a trip that offers a chance to negotiate a rapprochement.

“We are pleased to announce that Turkey and Russia have agreed to take necessary steps without delay to improve bilateral relations,” Erdogan spokesman Kalin said.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.