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News analysis

Carnage in Turkey may portend years of bloodshed

Govt set to intensify fight against Kurdish separatists that has already killed 40,000

ANKARA (Turkey) • Turkey has sent 20,000 soldiers and police officers to two troubled districts in the country's south-east to hunt down Kurdish separatist fighters it claims were behind Sunday's bombing in the capital Ankara that killed 37 people.

But while most of the country's politicians rallied behind President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vow to "intensify the fight against terrorists who intend to target the unity of Turkey", the latest carnage has raised fears of another bloody and prolonged confrontation. A decades-long fight with Kurdish separatists has already claimed the lives of 40,000 people since the 1990s.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack in which two suicide bombers drove their explosive-laden car into a busy public transport hub in Ankara just 150m away from key government buildings, including the prime minister's office.

The site of the attack, which also maimed 120 people, is still fenced off for forensic investigations, causing massive traffic jams throughout the capital. Meanwhile, the country's media regulator, the Radio and TV Supreme Council, has imposed a ban on the release of pictures and other sensitive reporting from the scene.

Nevertheless, Turkish security sources claim to have already identified at least one of the perpetrators, a woman who allegedly belonged to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a domestically grown Kurdish militant group classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its allies.

And the method of the latest attack, with its obvious intent of killing as many passers-by as possible, recalls other recent terrorist strikes in Ankara, such as the bombing at the capital's main railway station last October which left 103 dead, or last month's attack on military convoys passing through the capital that killed 29 soldiers.

In private, Western diplomats in Ankara worry that the government's crackdown on terrorism may prove inefficient.

President Erdogan claims that this terrorist wave has roots in the wider Middle East conflicts rather than in Turkey itself. "Turkey has become a target of terror attacks due to the instabilities in the region," he told journalists after ordering Turkish airplanes to strike at Kurdish militant camps in neighbouring Iraq.

Turkey's government also blames the war in Syria, where a Kurdish militia has seized territory adjacent to the Turkish border.

But Turkish opposition parties say the government should bear some responsibility for failing to curb terrorist violence. Mr Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party which polled a quarter of all ballots in last year's general election, pointed out that although the Turkish government recently unveiled a "new security strategy for Ankara", the capital has not had a police chief for months. The previous holder of the post was dismissed for alleged negligence in dealing with terrorism.

Critics of the government also want to know why the authorities appear to have taken no special security measures, despite the fact that the US Embassy in Ankara raised its security alert last week and issued an urgent warning to American citizens to avoid public buildings.

In private, Western diplomats in Ankara worry that the government's crackdown on terrorism may prove inefficient. For while a public statement issued yesterday by Turkey's armed forces claimed that the military "is expected to be engaged in an operation lasting approximately two months, to destroy PKK's logistical facilities", Kurdish separatists have proved to be very resilient in the past.

There are also fears that President Erdogan may use the latest terrorist attack as justification for banning the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a movement which draws most of its political support from Kurds and currently controls 59 seats in Turkey's 550-seat Parliament.

The HDP is now accused by the authorities of either actively supporting terrorism or, at best, failing to condemn the terrorist bloodshed.

"The party is under the strict influence of the PKK terrorists and does not have a mind of its own," claimed Mr Ilnur Cevik, a noted local commentator, in his prominent column published yesterday in Sabah, a daily which usually reflects official thinking.

European governments believe that such a ban would be deeply counter-productive, for not only would it generate further violence, but it would also deprive the Turkish government of any means of communicating with more moderate Kurds inside the country.

Still, with negotiations over a deal between Turkey and the European Union to stem the flow of migrants into Europe reaching a crucial point by the end of this week, no European government is prepared to voice its misgivings about Turkey's internal situation.

"We need to learn to live with terror for a while," Chief Justice Ismail Rustu Cirit, the head of Turkey's Supreme Court, told journalists, in a clear hint that Ankara is determined to remain on a war footing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Carnage in Turkey may portend years of bloodshed'. Print Edition | Subscribe