ISTANBUL – A 12-year-old girl became the ninth victim Tuesday of a bomb blast in Turkey's southeast, which has highlighted fears that Kurdish rebels seeking self-rule are becoming emboldened by moves toward autonomy by the Kurdish minority in war-torn Syria.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said the girl had died of her wounds and three other children were among those killed when a bomb concealed in a vehicle exploded Monday night near a police station in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, where tens of thousands of refugees are sheltering in Turkish camps.
Dozens more were wounded in the blast, which occurred on a Muslim holiday and came amid an increase in fighting in recent weeks between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels who took up arms in 1984.
There was no claim of responsibility, and Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency, cited militants as saying they were not involved and guerrilla forces would not attack civilians. However, Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said any disavowal by the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, was not credible, according to Turkey's NTV television. Kurdish militants have previously targeted civilians, and the PKK is deemed a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies.
"The fact that the PKK has not claimed the attack does not mean that it didn't do it," Sahin said during a visit to Gaziantep. "The attack has links within and outside of Turkey."
Turkey has conducted periodic air strikes against Kurdish rebel bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, but is now concerned that the guerrillas are organizing in Kurdish-dominated parts of Syria sympathetic to their cause, and where regime forces have pulled back as they struggle to quell a national uprising. Fighters from a Syrian Kurd group have set up checkpoints and hoisted Kurdish flags in some areas near Turkey, and Turkish forces have staged several drills on their side of the border in a show of force.
The complexity of the situation partly explains Turkish reservations about using troops to establish a buffer zone inside Syria to protect civilians fleeing attacks by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey nearly went to war with Syria over its support for the PKK when the rebel group was much more powerful in the 1990s, and it worries that Syrian Kurd moves toward autonomy could encourage Turkish Kurds to escalate their own campaign for self-rule in its southeast.
Within its borders, the Turkish state has granted more cultural rights to Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of Turkey's population of 75 million, but there is still a great deal of distrust between Ankara and many Kurds, who say they are treated poorly and remain a target of prosecution. Iran also has a large Kurdish minority, and Iraqi Kurds have carved out their own mini-state in northern Iraq.
Political analyst Wladimir van Wilgenburg said it would be difficult for the PKK to conduct attacks on Turkish targets from bases inside Syria because the border area is flat and relatively easy to control, unlike the rugged region between Turkey and Iraq. In addition, the border between Turkey and Syria is heavily mined and monitored.
"The PKK cannot use the Syrian Kurdish areas as a launching pad against Turkey and only controls limited areas where Syrian security forces are still present to some degree," van Wilgenburg wrote in an analysis published this month by The Jamestown Foundation, a US-based research center. "The PKK may aim to gain more legitimacy by playing a role in Syria, but not to use their presence there against Turkey militarily."
In a meeting with Turkish journalists last week, Francis J. Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, expressed concern about reports of arms shipments by Iran to the Syrian regime, an ally, and referred to the traditionally "good relations" between the Assad regime and the PKK. He described recent U.S. sanctions against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as an attempt to prevent the Syrian regime "or its fellow travelers like the PKK" from getting aid in the form of arms, logistical support and intelligence.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.