ISTANBUL, Turkey – Trucks packed with explosives blew up at a London-based bank and the British consulate Thursday, killing at least 25 people and wounding nearly 400. The attacks coincided with President Bush’s trip to Britain and were blamed on al-Qaida.
Security forces were put on the highest alert to deal with some of the worst bloodshed in Turkey since the 1970s.
The bombings at the high-rise headquarters of the HSBC bank and the British consulate occurred five minutes apart at about 11 a.m. They followed a pair of synagogue bombings Saturday that killed 23 people, plus the two bombers.
Bush, meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Thursday’s bombings showed the terrorists’ “utter contempt for innocent life.”
“The terrorists hope to intimidate, they hope to demoralize. They are not going to succeed,” Bush said at a news conference with Blair.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the attacks as “clearly appalling acts of terrorism” and suggested a link to the al-Qaida network.
“I’m afraid it has all the hallmarks of international terrorism practiced by al-Qaida,” he said in London.
A man calling the semiofficial Anatolia news agency said that al-Qaida and the militant Islamic Great Eastern Raiders’ Front, or IBDA-C, jointly claimed responsibility for attacks.
Turkish authorities blamed the Istanbul attacks on Saturday and Thursday on the same groups.
“It seems the attacks have been conducted with the same barbaric methods,” Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, who serves as government spokesman, told reporters.
It was the worst single-day toll from terrorism in Turkey since 1977, when gunmen opened fire on leftists celebrating May Day, killing 37 people.
Turkish media said the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers, but the governor’s office said only that attackers blew up explosive-laden pickup trucks.
At about the same time Thursday, in Iraq, a truck bomb exploded in front of a U.S.-backed Kurdish political party in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing five people and wounding 40. Officials pointed to an al-Qaida-linked militant group, Ansar al-Islam, as being behind that blast.
The first Istanbul blast was at the Turkish headquarters of HSBC, the world’s second-largest bank, shearing off the facade of the 18-story building and shattering the windows of nearby skyscrapers.
Body parts, the charred shells of cars and broken glass were scattered around a 9-foot-deep crater that was carved in the streets outside the bank. Water gushed out of the top floors of the building like a faucet.
Bystanders bloodied and covered in dust looked dazed as they walked past lines of ambulances. Several people helped carry the limp bodies of victims.
Turkish army troops made a brief appearance on the streets in Istanbul, deploying on a major highway and standing guard beside police in Istanbul. Military ambulances were also seen.
At least a dozen Turkish soldiers, wearing helmets and camouflage uniforms and armed with G-3 assault rifles, stood by their jeeps near the HSBC headquarters. Troops later were withdrawn.
Another bomb ripped off the wall surrounding the garden of the British consulate in the downtown Beyoglu district.
At least 25 people were killed and 390 wounded, Istanbul’s Health Department reported. Television reports initially said up to five blasts, but Turkish authorities later confirmed only two.
Straw said three or four British employees from the consulate had not reported to a roll call following the blasts. British consul-general Roger Short was reported dead by Turkish television stations.
“Once again we are reminded of the evil these terrorists pose to people everywhere and to our way of life,” Blair said. “Once again we must affirm that in the face of this terrorism there must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace, in attacking it wherever and whenever we can and in defeating it utterly.”
Blair also reaffirmed his commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
“It should not lessen … our commitment to Iraq,” he said. “On the contrary it shows how important it is to carry on until terrorism is defeated there as well.”
One witness was travelling on a bus near HSBC when the explosion occurred.
“I thought somebody hit our bus from the back, then I saw black smoke rising. Cars were damaged all around us. I saw the charred body of a driver at the wheel,” said a sobbing Mehmet Altan.
“After the blast, the bus doors got stuck and passengers broke the windows to get out. There were pieces of flesh spread all around,” bus driver Necati Erkek said.
Another witness, Hakan Kozan, 29, who was close to the British consulate at the time of the explosion, said the blast came from a white pickup truck. “I heard a slam on the brakes and 10 seconds later the explosion came,” Kozan told The Associated Press.
Mehmet Celik, who was slightly injured, said a light brown pickup truck “exploded in front of the HSBC headquarters.”
Suleyman Karatas, a bank employee, said there was “a bloodbath after the explosion,” according to the Anatolia news agency. He said a number of the 600 bank staff members were wounded.
Trading on the Turkish stock market was suspended. Some businesses, including the leading Yapi Kredi bank near HSBC and an IBM office near the British consulate, halted operations, CNN-Turk said.
The Istanbul State Security Court imposed a ban on news coverage of attacks, barring media from filming or broadcasting the images of attack sites, interviewing officials or reporting about the investigation. Turkish TV stations continued their broadcasts from the scenes and reported details of the attacks.
The deployment of the Turkish army troops Thursday was a significant step, since the military remains a powerful force that leads the secular establishment in this predominantly Muslim country.
It has in the past declared martial law when leftist and rightist militants fought in the streets of the nation’s largest cities, claiming up to 20 lives a day. The declaration of martial law preceded a 1980 coup when the military stayed in power three years and cracked down on terrorist groups, putting thousands of militants behind bars.
The military took over three times between 1960-80. The last time the military intervened in politics was in 1997, when they forced a religious-oriented government out of power without staging a coup.
The British consulate is located in the cramped historic Beyoglu district, a popular tourist destination with shops, bars, movie theaters and restaurants.
The nearby U.S. consulate was moved months ago to a new, more secure location in another district.
Authorities arrested six people Wednesday in the synagogue bombings. A Turkish court charged five with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional structure,” which carries a sentence of life imprisonment. The sixth was charged with “helping illegal organizations,” punishable by five years in prison, Anatolia said. No trial date was set.
The two suicide bombers who attacked the synagogues in pickup trucks were identified as Turks. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said the two had visited Afghanistan in the past and that investigators were pursuing al-Qaida links.
On Sunday, Osama bin Laden’s terror network claimed responsibility for the bombings in messages to two Arabic-language newspapers, but it was not possible to authenticate those claims. An outlawed Turkish radical group called the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders’ Front, or IBDA-C, also claimed responsibility, but Turkish authorities said the attack was too sophisticated to be carried out by that group.