Thursday, July 10, 2008

Al-Qa'ida in Turkey?

From Today's Zaman:
One of the three policemen killed in an attack on the US Consulate died at the hospital of wounds sustained during the attack. İstanbul Police Chief Celalettin Cerrah inspected the scene.
Three policemen and three gunmen were killed in an armed attack yesterday on the US Consulate General in İstanbul that sent shockwaves across Turkey at an already troubled time.

Both Turkey and the United States described the attack as a terrorist act, and US Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson said the US and Turkey would "stand together and confront this, as we have in the past."

The attack coincides with political tensions in Turkey. The police are probing a shadowy far-right group suspected of plotting a military coup against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which is in a legal fight to avert closure over charges of anti-secular activities.

The consulate occupies a citadel-like structure on a hill in İstinye, a densely populated residential neighborhood along the Bosporus on the European side of İstanbul. Turkish police guard the street, while US personnel are in charge of security inside the consulate compound. During the attack US security personnel stayed inside the compound, as they are not authorized to engage in armed action on Turkish soil.

The assailants came in a car and three of them later got out, opening fire on policemen at an entrance gate of the consulate at around 11 a.m. yesterday. Three police officers -- Nedim Çalık, Mehmet Önder Saçmalıoğlu and Erdal Öztaş -- were killed in the shooting and three assailants were shot dead, reportedly all by the same policeman, identified as Osman Dağlı, in the resulting shootout. News reports said the fleeing car was loaded with explosives.

Sources said some bystanders who had been waiting for US visas were also injured in the attack. The wounded were rushed to nearby hospitals for medical attention.

There was no immediate information on who was behind the attack, although there were unconfirmed reports that al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-trained elements were involved. İstanbul Governor Muammer Güler said all three assailants killed in the clash were Turkish citizens, denying earlier speculation that they had Syrian passports.

"It is, of course, inappropriate now to speculate on who may have done this or why. It is an obvious act of terrorism," Ambassador Wilson told a press conference.

Police launched an operation to capture the fourth assailant, who fled the scene in the automobile, and private CNN-Türk reported that two suspects, one of whom was identified as Atilla Çınar, were soon taken into custody. Sources identified the assailants as Erkan Kargın, Rauf Topçıl and Bülent Çınar and news reports said they had been trained in Afghanistan.

"At first sight, the attack appears to be pointing to al-Qaeda," said Sedat Laçiner, the head of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/USAK), adding that it might be a symbolic assault on both the United States and the Turkish police protecting the consulate building. "If you look at other similar attacks in the Middle East, you will see that they are directed more at the local forces protecting the Western interests than the West itself. Attackers may believe that they inflicted harm on the Turkish police who protect the US," he told Today's Zaman.

Mahir Kaynak, a former intelligence chief, expressed doubt that the attack could be related to the ongoing investigation into the Ergenekon network, which has so far resulted in the arrests of dozens of people, including two retired generals. "The attack was primarily directed against the US Consulate. The target would have been something else if the attack was related to domestic developments," he said.

Wilson also said he didn't believe the attack had any links to the Ergenekon terrorist organization, saying in response to a question that there was no evidence pointing to such a link at the moment.

Güler told reporters that one of the slain police officers worked at the consulate and that the other two were traffic policemen. "One of the police officers died at the scene of the incident during what police said was a two-minute gunfight. Two died of their wounds at a hospital. Two other policemen were injured in the attack. Their conditions are not life-threatening. One of them was injured in the shoulder and the other in the elbow. They were rushed to nearby hospitals," he said.

"Weapons and shotguns have been found at the scene of attack. We have launched an investigation into the incident. We will examine it in all its aspects. It is said the assailants arrived at the scene in a vehicle. I cannot say which group or terrorist organization the attackers belonged to at the moment. We are very sorry for our martyred police officers. May their souls rejoice. I extend my condolences to their families," he said.

A US Embassy spokeswoman said there were no reports of casualties among consulate employees. "We are cooperating with the police and taking the appropriate measures," she said.

One eyewitness said: "They came in a white car. They had hand grenades, pistols and weapons in their hands. Three of them got out of the vehicle and fired at police officers waiting in front of the consulate. Policemen started shooting in return, but three of them were martyred. I saw them dead, lying on the ground."

Another eyewitness, Ulus Durgut, said the attackers were bearded men with long hair.

Interior Minister Beşir Atalay expressed his sorrow for the martyred policemen. "A comprehensive investigation has been launched into the incident. Three police officers were killed in the attack. Our pain is great. We will make a broad statement when the shroud of mist around the shooting dissipates," he said.

Security increased around US missions

İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor Aykut Cengiz Engin told reporters that the evidence so far pointed to a terrorist attack.

"According to preliminary reports, the assailants were between the ages of 25and 30 and had guns and shotguns. They have not yet been identified. The fourth attacker managed to flee from the scene. The modus operandi, nature and characteristics of the attack show that it was a terrorist act," he said.

Wilson thanked the Turkish police for the courage they showed in the attack. "The staff at the US Embassy is in good condition. We are grateful to the Turkish police for the bravery they displayed," he said. "It is enough to say that they are terrorists who carried out a dastardly and cowardly attack. The attack was perpetrated against both Turkey and the US. Our countries stand together in the fight against international terrorism. Such attacks will not be able to distort the friendly relations between Turkey and the US," he added.

Wilson said security around US diplomatic missions in Turkey had been increased after yesterday's attack. "We asked for increased security presence, and the police responded effectively and quickly," he said.

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