Turkey detains two ISIS suspects over New Year attack plot

A video screengrab shows the moment an explosion ripped through a peace rally in Ankara in October 2015.
A video screengrab shows the moment an explosion ripped through a peace rally in Ankara in October 2015.PHOTO: AFP

ANKARA (AFP) - Turkish police on Wednesday detained two Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suspects accused of plotting a suicide bombing on New Year's Eve celebrations in the capital Ankara.

The arrests come with European countries on high alert for possible attacks over the New Year, with Belgium detaining two suspected Islamists and Moscow closing off Red Square.

Turkish officials said the two men, reportedly both Turks, were planning to strike an area in the centre of Ankara that is expected to be packed with revellers on the night of Dec 31.

"They are suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State and were planning an attack on the New Year in Ankara," a Turkish official told AFP, asking not to be named.

Turkey has been on a high security alert since Oct 10, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowd of peace activists in Ankara, killing 103 people in the worst attack in the country's modern history.

According to the private NTV television, counter-terrorism police arrested the pair in the Mamak district on the outskirts of the capital, which is home to more than five million people.

The two were planning to stage an attack in Ankara's main Kizilay square, the Anatolia news agency reported, citing the prosecutor's office.

The suspects, identified as MC and AY, had already carried out surveillance on potential targets, according to the Ankara governor's office.

They had planned to strike two spots in Kizilay - one outside a big shopping mall and the second in a street packed with pubs.

Police also confiscated one suicide bomb vest, one bomb mechanism with ball bearings and one rucksack with bomb-making materials, the governor's office said.

Television footage showed police with bomb-sniffing dogs searching the building where the two men were caught and the surrounding area.

The October attack in Ankara was blamed on ISIS militants, like two other deadly strikes in the country's Kurdish-dominated south-east earlier in the summer.

In June, four people were killed in an attack on a rally of the main pro-Kurdish party in Diyarbakir while in July, 33 people were killed in a suicide bombing against activists in the town of Suruc on the Syrian border.

Turkish authorities have over the past few months cracked down on the ISIS group's so-called "sleeper cells" throughout the country.

"Turkey is a target of terror because it is on the frontline in the fight against ISIS," the Turkish official told AFP.

Earlier this month, police arrested an alleged member of the ISIS group suspected of planning a suicide attack on the US consulate in Istanbul.

Long criticised by its allies for taking too soft a line against extremists, Turkey is taking firmer action against the ISIS group on the border with Syria after being shaken by attacks on its soil and the Paris assaults in November.

Turkey has vehemently rejected accusations of failing to properly police the 911km border, saying its sheer length makes it impossible to block off entirely.

Ankara has called for better intelligence sharing from its allies - a complaint also brought up by its Western partners.

In Turkey's biggest city Istanbul, 15,000 police will be deployed to ensure security over the New Year, including 5,000 in the area around the central Taksim Square, the city's deputy police security chief Zafer Baybaba said.

European capitals have also beefed up security after the coordinated attacks in Paris which left 130 people dead and hundreds more wounded on Nov 13.

Belgian police arrested two people suspected of plotting attacks in Brussels during New Year festivities, the federal prosecutor's office said this week.

Police seized military-style training uniforms, computer hardware and ISIS propaganda material in raids around the capital Brussels and in the Liege region.

Austrian police said Saturday they had stepped up security in Vienna and other cities after receiving a warning of possible attacks during the holiday season.

And Moscow's Red Square, traditionally a place where people gather to ring in the New Year, will be closed to revellers on Dec 31 amid mounting security concerns.