SURUC, Turkey (AFP) - Turkey said Tuesday it had identified a suspect over a devastating suicide bombing on the border with Syria blamed on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, as the government rushed to bolster security on the porous frontier.
Thirty-two people were killed and more than 100 wounded on Monday when a bomb ripped through a crowd of young socialist activists in a mainly Kurdish region preparing to take aid over the border into Syria.
The attack in Suruc was one of the deadliest in Turkey in recent years and the first time the government has directly accused the ISIS group of carrying out an act of terror on Turkish soil.
In harrowing scenes Tuesday, loved ones of the dead clutched the coffins of the victims in a farewell ceremony in the nearby city of Gaziantep ahead of their burial in towns across Turkey.
“One suspect has been identified. All the (suspect’s) links internationally and domestically are being investigated,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in the regional centre of Sanliurfa after visiting the wounded in hospital.
He added there was a “high probability” the attack was caused by a suicide bomber with connections to ISIS extremists.
“We expect this investigation to be concluded as soon as possible,” he said.
Davutoglu said the death toll had risen to 32 and that 29 injured victims were still in hospital.
“What is necessary will be done against whomever responsible for (the attack),” Davutoglu said.
“This is an attack that targeted Turkey.”
'REINFORCE BORDER SECURITY'
The Hurriyet daily said Turkey’s intelligence agency had previously warned the government that seven ISIS members – three of them women – had crossed into the country in recent weeks with the aim of carrying out attacks.
Previous reports had suggested the bomber was a woman but the DIHA news agency said the person was a 20-year-old Turkish man who had become involved with ISIS two months ago.
Davutoglu declined to give any further details on the identity.
The ISIS group, which has claimed swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq right up to the Turkish border, has so far not claimed the Suruc bombing.
But Davutoglu said Turkey was taking steps to improve border security, which has long been criticised by its Western partners.
He said the Cabinet would discuss Wednesday an “action plan” on border security and the government will then take the “necessary measures”.
“Conflicts abroad should not be allowed to spread to Turkey,” he said.
Turkey has long been accused by its Western partners of not doing enough to halt the rise of ISIS and even colluding with the group, allegations it vehemently denies.
So far, Turkey has not played a full role in the US-led coalition against ISIS and been wary of backing the militants' Kurdish opponents, saying the priority is the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But Davutoglu said the government had “never had any direct or indirect connection with any terrorist organisation”.
Ankara has in the last weeks appeared to take a harder line against the IS group, rounding up dozens of suspected members in Istanbul and other cities.
‘SPILLOVER INTO TURKEY’
Nihat Ali Ozcan, security expert at Ankara-based TEPAV think-tank, said the Suruc attack showed the confrontation between ISIS and Kurdish groups within Syria was “spilling over to Turkish soil”.
“The attack could trigger ideological, ethnic and political fault lines in Turkey,” he told AFP.
The activists from the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF) had arrived in Suruc to take part in a rebuilding mission for Kobane, which Kurdish forces had retaken from ISIS earlier this year.
Pictures posted on social media showed the toys they had planned to take over for the children of Kobane.
Just before the attack, they had been photographed seated at tables having breakfast. The identities of 30 of the victims have now been confirmed by the authorities.
Hundreds of pro-Kurdish activists took to the streets of Turkish cities on Monday night to protest against the attacks and government policy on Syria, with police in Istanbul using water cannon to disperse the rally.
The leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas called on people to join an international rally against “ISIS barbarism” in Istanbul at the weekend.
The governor of the region of Sanliurfa where Suruc is located announced that public rallies had been banned as a security precaution although the ruling was later reversed.
Dozens of people were killed in October in nationwide protests across Turkey against the government’s perceived lack of support for Kurds battling ISIS militants.