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Turkey: Twin Bomb Attacks In Istanbul Kill At Least 26, Injure Hundreds

Prague, 20 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At least 26 people have been killed and more than 400 others injured in twin bomb attacks on British interests in Istanbul. The nearly simultaneous blasts targeted the British Consulate and the offices of HSBC, one of Britain's biggest banks. The British consul general, Roger Short, is among 15 people reported to have died at the consulate.

Turkish officials say the blasts appear to have been the result of car bombs and were probably suicide attacks. They came just five days after suicide bombers attacked two synagogues in Istanbul, killing 25 people and injuring hundreds.

In Stockholm, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul vowed Turkey will not "bow to terror." "Now, we are faced with the organized terrorist attacks," Gul said. "Unfortunately, we lost so many innocent people, but we will continue to fight against terrorism, all the time."

Britain warned its citizens against travel to Istanbul. Prime Minister Tony Blair told a news conference with visiting U.S. President George W. Bush that what he called this "terrorist outrage" shows that democracy is fighting a war against evil.

"Once again, we are reminded of the evil these terrorists pose to innocent people everywhere and to our way of life. Once again, we must affirm that in the face of this terrorism, there must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace, in attacking it wherever and whenever we can and in defeating it utterly," Bush said.

The blasts severely damaged both the consulate and the HSBC building. Windows in buildings hundreds of meters away were also shattered, leading to earlier reports of up to five explosions. Television footage showed mutilated bodies at the sites of the attacks, as well as injured people, some in bloodstained clothes, wandering dazed on the streets outside.

Pinar Yildiz, a reporter with Turkey's private No.1 TV, described the scene outside the HSBC building in an interview with Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service: "At that moment, I was passing by. People were on the street. At HSBC, a woman had her face completely destroyed. She was crying and blood was pouring from her face. The other lady was safe and unharmed because she was under a table. They said that this happened because they were a foreign bank and there were many people injured. They asked us to take them away. I immediately said, 'Yes.'"

Officials are speaking of the similarities -- and possible links -- between today's attacks and last week's (15 November) twin synagogue bombings in Istanbul.

Turkey's semi-official Anatolia news agency says it received a call claiming responsibility for today's blasts. The caller said they were the joint work of Al-Qaeda and a Turkish militant group, the Islamic Front of Raiders of the Great Orient (IBDA-C). Those are the two groups Turkish authorities blame for last week's attacks.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said today's blasts bear "all the hallmarks" of Al-Qaeda and its associates. "At this stage, we cannot say for certain who has been responsible for this appalling act of terrorism in Istanbul, which comes on top of the savage outrage against Jewish and Muslim people in Istanbul [on 15 November]," he said. "But I'm afraid to say it has all the hallmarks of international terrorism practiced by Al-Qaeda and the associated organizations."

Straw said the attacks are not necessarily a strike against British interests in particular. But many will see in them a connection with Britain's staunch support of the U.S. in the war on terrorism and the occupation of Iraq -- especially as they coincided with Bush's high-profile state visit to the U.K.

David Capitanchik is a terrorism expert at Robert Gordon's University in Aberdeen, Scotland. He says the targets may have been chosen simply because the attackers spotted an opportunity. "I think nowadays Al-Qaeda and groups like that wouldn't be distinguishing between British and American [interests]," he said. "I think it's generally Western targets. In a certain sense, they're opportunistic. I understand, for instance, in the case of the British consulate, there was building work going on there and so on, and it was probably a much softer target than it would normally be."

Some observers also say Turkey may have been chosen for two other reasons -- it presents a softer target than mainland Britain and it is a Muslim majority state allied with the West.