Turkey hits back at ISIS after terror blast

A woman expresses her sympathies with the phrase "I am Istanbul", in German. The 10 victims of the recent terror attack in Istanbul were all German tourists.
A woman expresses her sympathies with the phrase "I am Istanbul", in German. The 10 victims of the recent terror attack in Istanbul were all German tourists.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

PM Davutoglu says nearly 200 militants dead, days after ISIS suicide bomber passing as refugee kills 10 in Istanbul

ISTANBUL • Turkish ground forces have launched a major offensive against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in the two countries in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 10 German tourists in Istanbul this week, said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

An ISIS suicide bomber who entered Turkey as a Syrian refugee blew himself up among tourists in the historic centre of Istanbul.

Mr Davutoglu said on Thursday that nearly 200 militants were killed by Turkish tank and artillery fire, which struck at least 500 of the group's positions over the past 48 hours. The Prime Minister was addressing Turkish ambassadors in the capital, Ankara.

It was not immediately clear how the government had verified the number of militants killed. The Prime Minister did not say whether there were any Turkish casualties, or elaborate on the locations of the ISIS targets.

A suicide bomber identified as a Syrian citizen and ISIS operative struck in the heart of the Sultanahmet tourist district in Istanbul on Tuesday, killing 10 people and wounding at least 15. It was the first time the group had attacked tourists in Turkey.

Turkey has stepped up its cooperation with the United States-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria after drawing criticism from its Western allies that it was not doing enough.

The government's reluctance may have been due, in part, to concerns that Turkey, which shares a border with both Iraq and Syria, would face retaliation from ISIS.

Tuesday's attack was the third major suicide bombing in Turkey since it joined the coalition. The deadliest killed more than 100 people last year in the capital.

Mr Davutoglu has vowed to continue the fight against terrorism, saying Turkey will carry out airstrikes against ISIS militants if necessary. "Every attack that targets Turkey's guests will be punished," he said.

Referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym, he added: "We will press ahead with our determined struggle until the Daesh terrorist organisation leaves Turkey's borders, and until it loses its ability to continue with its acts that soil our sacred religion, Islam."

Mr Davutoglu said the Turkish strikes had targeted ISIS positions around Bashiqa in northern Iraq, where Ankara recently deployed a unit to defend Turkish soldiers who are training an Iraqi militia in the fight against the Sunni extremists.

Cross-border strikes into Syria targeted an area around the rebel-held town of Marea, 20km from the Turkish border and near the edge of a "safe zone" Turkey wants to establish in northern Syria to keep ISIS at bay.

"Our ground strikes on these positions are continuing and, if necessary, our air force will come into play," Mr Davutoglu said.

The Turkish military is also carrying out a counter-insurgency campaign against Kurdish militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, after the group ended a two-year ceasefire in July last year during which Ankara launched what it called a "synchronised war on terror".

This has mostly involved air strikes and a ground campaign against PKK militants in its south- east, but also included allowing its Incirlik air base to be used by coalition countries to bomb ISIS.

This has left Turkish security forces stretched between two wars at home and abroad. On Wednesday, the PKK struck a police station in a district of the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir with a truck bomb in one of its biggest attacks since the conflict between the Kurdish militants and the Turkish state was reignited.

Turkish security forces have fought a three-decade-long war against insurgents seeking greater Kurdish autonomy in a conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

"The PKK just took the conflict to a whole new level," said Mr Metin Goc, a medic from Diyarbakir, who was reached by phone.

"They are carrying out more sophisticated attacks, like we see in Iraq or Syria, that also target civilians. This means one thing: The Turks will now step up their campaign in retaliation and even more civilian blood will be shed."

REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Turkey hits back at ISIS after terror blast'. Print Edition | Subscribe