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Turkey bombings prompt outcry over support for Syria rebels

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Deadly weekend car bombings in a southern Turkish city have galvanized domestic opposition to the government’s steadfast support for Syrian rebels amid fears that Turkey is being dragged into the bloody conflict across its border.

“The chaos of Syria has been transported here,” said Faruk Logoglu, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party, speaking Monday from the stunned town of Reyhanli, close to the Syrian border. “This is a direct result of the government’s Syria policy.”

The attacks have been widely viewed as “blowback” from the Turkish government’s support for the Syrian political and military opposition. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed Turkish territory to be used as a logistics and organizing base for both armed rebels and political factions seeking to oust the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

PHOTOS: Bombings in Turkey

Erdogan is scheduled to meet with President Obama at the White House this week in a visit that is expected to focus largely on Syria. The Turkish government has long sought a more forceful U.S. role in support of the Syrian opposition.

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Less than 24 hours after Saturday’s attacks, Turkish authorities pointed at the Syrian government and dismissed the idea that the bombings could have been carried out by Syrian rebels, who have a robust presence in Hatay province, where Reyhanli is situated.

“The incident is certainly linked to the Syrian regime,” Erdogan later told reporters. “It has nothing to do with the opposition.”

Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler called Syria’s intelligence services the “usual suspects.”

Syria’s information minister, Omran Zoubi, denied that Syria had any role in the bombings, and labeled the Turkish government “Al Qaeda’s political branch,” a reference to the many Al Qaeda-linked fighters in the Syrian rebel ranks.

Turkish officials said Damascus’ motive in the attacks was to sow divisions about Turkey’s aid to the opposition. The bombings have ratcheted up the discord here about Turkey’s role in Syria.

But some analysts noted that the rebels, some of whom have considerable expertise in car bombs, also could have a motive: to spur Turkish retaliation against the Assad regime or even international intervention on behalf of Turkey, the eastern bulwark of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The government said it had arrested nine suspects, all Turkish citizens linked to left-wing terrorist groups with alleged ties to Syrian intelligence. But one opposition politician called the government’s theory a “fantasy.”

“There is no concrete evidence to suggest which group is behind the attack,” lawmaker Ertugrul Kurkcu of the Peace and Democracy Party told reporters in Reyhanli, according to Today’s Zaman newspaper.

He was among a number of opposition lawmakers who rushed to the scene of the attacks, which left 49 dead and wounded more than 100, according to the latest figures.

Several Turkish opposition parties have long objected to the government’s Syria policy, saying it risks bringing the war to Turkish soil. After the bombings, protesters marched in Hatay province, hoisting banners demanding, “Hands off Syria.”

When the rebellion began in Syria more than two years ago, Ankara and Damascus were on friendly terms, having overcome a traditionally strained relationship and having held joint military exercises not long before. Back in 2005, Erdogan had even invited Assad to vacation in Turkey as his guest. At the time, Ankara was pursuing a policy of “zero problems with the neighbors,” seeking cordial ties with nearby nations.

Early in the Syrian conflict, Turkey tried to use its position to leverage a political settlement. But Erdogan later said the Syrian government’s violence against its own people had turned him against Assad, whom he has since labeled a “brutal dictator.”

Despite the controversy about its support for the rebels, Turkey has been widely praised for providing shelter to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees.

On the streets of Istanbul, anger about the bombings and the government’s handling of the Syria crisis was evident Monday.

“Their stupid policy led to a situation where too many people have been killed and nothing changed,” said Begum Gunceler, a musician.

But Ankara showed no sign of recalibrating its Syria policy. Speaking from Berlin on Sunday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged “the international community to act together against this regime.”

In Reyhanli, security was bolstered and tensions reportedly remained high between Turkish residents and the Syrians who have found refuge in the town.

“It’s really hard now,” said Ahmed, a refugee reached via Skype near the border who didn’t want his last name used for security reasons. The Turks “are full of anger. They are saying, ‘You came here and brought all of Syria’s troubles,’ ” he said.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Johnson reported from Istanbul and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

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