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Protests and skepticism in Turkey follow bombings at peace rally

Protests and skepticism in Turkey follow bombings at peace rally
Turkish police officers in riot gear disperse protesters who tried to reach the site of Saturday's explosions to hold a memorial for the victims in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 11, 2015. (Burhan Ozbilici / Associated Press)

Protesters took to the streets across Turkey on Sunday, a day after two apparent suicide bombings killed nearly 100 demonstrators in the capital and set off incendiary political recriminations just three weeks before general elections.

Thousands of flag-waving demonstrators gathered near the scene of Saturday's devastating blasts, which occurred as peace demonstrators were gathering just outside Ankara's main rail station. Many chanted "Murderer government!" – reflecting sentiment among critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his administration has pursued a military campaign against Kurdish separatists in order to stir up nationalist passions.

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More marches and sit-ins protesting the attack were held in Istanbul, the country's biggest city and commercial center. Labor unions, some of which had helped organize Saturday's rally calling for an end to the Kurdish conflict, vowed large-scale strikes.

Adding to tensions, the Turkish military announced more airstrikes Sunday targeting Kurdish militants' hideouts in the country's southeast and in the mountains of northern Iraq. A day earlier, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, had announced a unilateral cease-fire in advance of the Nov. 1 vote.

Among those who marched in protest on Sunday, there was anger over perceived security lapses in protecting the targeted gathering and widespread skepticism over prospects for a thorough investigation.

"These kinds of attacks are never investigated well," said Hassan Sanli, a prominent labor activist who attended Sunday's rally in the capital. "They will never find the murderers and instigators."

With Turkey observing three days of official mourning, the names of the identified dead were read out one by one on television. At least 95 people were confirmed dead and 246 injured, with 65 of those needing life support to survive, according to the semi-official Anatolia news agency.

Images of carnage continued to circulate on social media, despite government attempts to disrupt access to platforms including Twitter and Facebook. For some, the attack, among the deadliest in the history of the modern Turkish state, created an ominous sense of more political violence and turmoil to come.

"If these crises, bombings and blood continue, we will all be crippled in Turkey," said 23-year-old Ahmet Yilmaz, interviewed by cellphone in an Ankara hospital bed where he was awaiting surgery to remove shrapnel from Saturday's attack. Recounting the blasts, he said he had seen injured people running away from the explosions, splattered by the body parts of other victims.

No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts, but news reports cited intelligence officials deeming the militants of Islamic State the likely perpetrators.

The group was implicated in a similar attack in July in the border town of Suruc that killed more than 30 people, mainly pro-Kurdish activists. However, hardline ultra-nationalist elements have lately become more visible, staging attacks on Kurdish political party offices and other targets.

Turkey's already polarized political parties traded accusations of responsibility for the attack.The leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas, accused the ruling Justice and Development party of complicity in fomenting violence.

"If I were the prime minister of this country, I would go in front of the people of Turkey, apologize 1,000 times and resign," said a furious Demirtas, according to BGN News. "We will not allow you to become our killers."

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sharply dismissed the allegations and accused the pro-Kurdish party of ignoring the "martyrdom" of Turkish police and soldiers killed in fighting with Kurdish militants.

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The government has so far indicated that balloting will go ahead as scheduled, but some said even if the vote is held, its outcome has been compromised by violence and intimidation.

"This bombing shows quite clearly that the election will not be conducted in a free, fair and healthy way," said Omur Bolat, who served as a volunteer polling observer during June's vote.

That voting cost the Justice and Development party its parliamentary majority, and new elections were called after no coalition government could be agreed upon.

Johnson is a special correspondent.

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