ISTANBUL (Reuters)–Suspected Islamist suicide car bombers killed at least 27 people and wounded hundreds in Istanbul on Thursday in twin strikes against British targets just five days after similar deadly attacks on synagogues.
Bombings of the British consulate and HSBC Bank headquarters in Istanbul appeared to have been timed to coincide with talks in London between US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair–his chief ally in the war in Iraq.
British Consul-General Roger Short–a career diplomat–was among at least 13 killed at the mission where a van pulled up on a busy street and exploded–leaving a huge crater. "We knew it was a bomb when an arm came flying through the window,” said a doctor at a clinic near HSBC–the world’s second largest bank–which is based in London.
The governor’s office said at least 27 people had been killed and 440 wounded in the almost simultaneous strikes–which mirrored Saturday’s attacks on Istanbul synagogues. The vast majority of victims in both cases were Turkish Muslims.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the strikes bore "all the hallmarks of the international terrorism operations practiced by al Qaeda and associated organizations.” A caller to Anatolian news agency claimed responsibility on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and a Turkish group known as the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front (IBDA-C).
An al Qaeda unit and the IBDA-C also claimed responsibility for the synagogue attacks–which killed 25 and injured hundreds–and had warned that the Islamist network was planning more strikes against the United States and its allies.
"When we look at the events of five days ago they almost completely match today’s explosions…but it is too early to say who did this," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference–adding the perpetrators would "pay the price for their deeds in this world and the next."
Blair told a London news conference with Bush the "terrorist outrage” showed democracy was fighting a war against evil. Straw was to travel to Istanbul late on Thursday. Thursday’s double strike shocked world markets–already on edge after al Qaeda’s warning earlier this week of more attacks. European stocks sank and gold–seen as a relatively risk free investment in times of uncertainty–firmed.
The first of Thursday’s blasts hit a wide avenue in the financial district–flanked by the towering HSBC building and a popular new glass-fronted shopping mall. The target of the second–the consulate–was set in a narrow street of older stone buildings in an area brimming with shops–bars and restauran’s.
At both bomb sites–men and women wept amid a chaos of wrecked cars and dismembered bodies. Thick black smoke rose into a blue sky as emergency services screamed through the streets.
"I heard a large bang. I thought it was an earthquake," Adnan Akyildiz–who was working at the consulate–said.
"I threw myself out of the window…the scene was horrendous–the gate–the consulate–the buildings were all demolished."
"Then I looked for my friends–I saw four of the other cleaners dead; two of them were husband and wife."
Rescue teams with sniffer dogs searched through the rubble after dusk as forensic teams in white suits combed the area around the consulate looking for clues.
A witness reported a green van with the markings of a food company driving into the gate of the consulate as it exploded–the same devastating technique used in the synagogue attacks.
Turkey–the only Muslim NATO member–is one of Washington’s closest political and military allies in the Muslim world – a relationship that singles it out as a possible target for Islamist militants. Its government has Islamist roots but its policies are strongly pro-Western. Bush expressed grief over the attacks. "Great Britain and America and other free nations are united…in our determination to fight and defeat this evil wherever it is found."
"The terrorists hope to intimidate–they hope to demoralize. They particularly want to intimidate and demoralize free nations. They are not going to succeed," he said.
The strike was the third suicide attack this month targeting foreigners in the region following the explosions at the Jewish synagogues and the killing of at least 18 at an international housing compound in the Saudi capital Riyadh on November 9.
Turkish police said the bombs used on Thursday were the same as in the synagogue attacks–a mixture of common chemicals and fuel that left a foul stench hanging in the air. A senior Israeli military source said both days’ bombings pointed to al Qaeda or al Qaeda-linked groups because they were aimed at unguarded–civilian sites–were carried out simultaneously and targeted Jewish or Western targets.
Western intelligence has long feared militants could launch attacks on "soft targets" in countries such as Turkey.
The attacks could deal a tremendous blow to a Turkish economy struggling with recession and facing huge debt repaymen’s over the next year. A tenuous return of foreign investment could be put at risk by any atmosphere of danger.
The Istanbul stock exchange was closed after the explosions–but not before the stock index had dived 7.37 percent. Banks ceased quotes on the Turkish interbank foreign exchange market.