Erdogan rallies Turks against unprecedented wave of terrorism

Friday 18/03/2016
Combative speech

ISTANBUL (Turkey) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday urged Turks to stand tall against "one of the biggest waves of terrorism" in their history, as police hunt three alleged jihadists suspected of planning further suicide attacks.

In a combative speech in Istanbul Erdogan drew on the "grandeur of the Ottoman Empire" in promising to crush the Islamic State radicals and Kurdish rebels behind a string of bombings that have killed over 200 people since July.

"We will hit these terrorist organisations as hard as possible," Erdogan said, two days after a suspected ISIS bomber blew himself up on a famous shopping street in Istanbul, killing four foreigners and injuring dozens.

"We will... quickly overcome them," he pledged.

His remarks came as police hunted for three suspected members of a Turkish ISIS cell suspected of planning further attacks in public places in Istanbul and other cities, Dogan news agency reported. Photographs of the three were published in the Turkish media.

Hurriyet daily cited intelligence sources as saying a group of extremists, taking their cue from the Paris attacks, had been planning to blow themselves up among supporters at an Istanbul football derby on Sunday between arch-rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce.

Istanbul's governor postponed the game two hours before kickoff, citing intelligence pointing to a "serious" threat.

One of the men sought by police, Savas Yildiz, was initially suspected of being the perpetrator of Saturday's blast on Istiklal Caddesi, a famous two-kilometre (1.2-mile) pedestrian shopping street that is usually thronged with shoppers and strollers.

Interior Minister Efkan Ala later named Mehmet Ozturk as the perpetrator and said he was "linked to the terrorist organisation Daesh" -- an Arabic term for ISIS.

Three Israelis and one Iranian were killed in the attack, which injured 39 people, most of them foreign tourists. Four people were still in critical condition on Monday.

ISIS has been blamed for four of the last six bombings, including Turkey's worst-ever attack, which killed 103 people at a peace rally in the capital Ankara in October, as well as another suicide bombing outside Istanbul's Blue Mosque in January that killed 12 German tourists.

The other two attacks, which killed a total of 65 people in Ankara, were claimed by a radical offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), against whom the Turkish military is waging a bloody campaign.

Erdogan has been accused of devoting far more resources to the fight against the PKK than to combatting IS, and has also come under fire for muzzling academics, journalists and activists who question his policies.

"We're not fighting democracy but terrorism, we're not fighting human rights but terrorists," said Turkey's strongman leader, who has called for academics, journalists and activists who criticise the military's actions to be prosecuted as "terrorist accomplices".

He again upbraided Europe for allowing pro-PKK activists set up a tent outside EU buildings in Brussels during last week's EU-Turkey summit on migration.

"How can the EU, which considers this (PKK) a terrorist organisation, tolerate such a situation?" Erdogan thundered.

"Where's the sincerity?" he asked, accusing the EU -- which has criticised Turkey's worsening rights record -- of "hypocrisy".

His speech coincided with celebrations to mark Kurdish New Year that were restricted in several cities over fears of violence.

Around 50,000 gathered to mark the Nevruz holiday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey's biggest Kurdish majority city, which has been under a military lockdown for most of the past three months.

The turnout was markedly down on previous such gatherings in the city, reflecting a sense of weariness among the population after months of curfews and street battles between the security forces and young PKK members, a journalist in Diyarbakir reported.

Hundreds of rebels, security force members and civilians have been killed since a truce between the state and the PKK fell apart in July, reigniting a three-decade-long conflict that has killed some 40,000 people.

"What I want from Nevruz is peace," Mehmet Bilmez said.

"I want this war to stop as soon as possible."