Turkey grinds to halt after massive power cut; govt not ruling out terrorist attack

ISTANBUL (AFP) - A massive power cut caused chaos Tuesday across Turkey, shutting down the metro networks in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, with the government saying an outside attack on the system was not ruled out.

The power cut, the worst in one-and-a-half decades, began around 10:36 am (3:36pm Singapore time) in Istanbul, the state-run Anatolia news agency quoted the Turkey Electricity Transmission Company (TEIAS) as saying.

It was confirmed to have hit 49 of the country’s total 81 provinces, from the Greek border to those in the southeast neighbouring Iran and Iraq and including Istanbul and the capital Ankara. Several hours later, swathes of Turkey including much of Istanbul were still without power, although public transport systems such as metro lines appeared to be working again.

“Every possibility, including a terrorist attack, is being investigated,” said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after the magnitude of the outage became clear. He added that a crisis cell has been established at the energy ministry to handle situation, which occurred as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was out of the country on a visit to Slovakia.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz also said the authorities were investigating whether the power outage was due to a technical failure or a “cyber-attack.”

“The most important thing for us is to bring the system back to life. This is not something we frequently experience,” Yildiz said. He later sought to calm tensions, saying power had already been restored to several regions and the whole country “would be fully energised again soon”.

The ministry was quoted as saying by Turkish media that a power cut on this scale had not been seen in 15 years.

The blackout trapped people in elevators while the metro systems in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir all stopped working for several hours. Rescue teams rushed to subway stations to evacuate stranded travellers and bring them to the surface. Traffic lights also were not working in several places in Istanbul and Ankara, causing huge traffic jams, with officers taking to the streets in an attempt to break the logjams. Websites warned commuters to take special care of traffic accidents.

The Marmaray metro line which goes underneath the Bosphorus in Istanbul also went down while high speed train services from Ankara were also halted.

POWER GRADUALLY RETURNS

Around three hours after the power cut struck Istanbul, the metro, tramway and the Marmaray underground system came back on line and resumed operations. Power was being gradually restored to Istanbul with some reports claiming that 80 percent of the city had power again.

However many private homes and offices were still without power. In the heavily industrialised western city of Izmit, near Istanbul, the cuts prevented many factories and workshops from functioning.

There were conflicting initial reports about the cause of the outage, but Turkish grid operator TEIAS said it resulted from a severing of the power lines between Europe and Turkey, and warned it could take hours before electricity is restored.

The Chamber of Electrical Engineers of Turkey, however, claimed that it occurred because some private power suppliers had refused to sell electricity due to low prices. The DHA news agency said almost all provinces in Turkey were affected by the outage, except the Van province in the east which imports electricity from neighbouring Iran.

Conspiracy theories for the outage also did the rounds on the Internet, with the situation the top trend under the hashtag #BuradaElektrikYok (There is no electricity here).

There was no immediate indication that the situation was linked to the hostage drama ongoing in Istanbul where a radical leftist group took a prosecutor hostage at a courthouse and threatened to kill him.

The cut came at a particularly tense period in Turkey ahead of June 7 legislative elections and with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly polarising society.

The government is seeking to make peace with Kurdish militants while also dealing with the advance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremists up to the Turkish border.