ANKARA – Assailants on Wednesday exploded a car bomb near vehicles carrying military personnel in the Turkish capital, killing at least 18 people and wounding some 45 others, officials said.
The explosion occurred during evening rush hour in the heart of Ankara, in an area close to where military headquarters and parliament are located. Buses carrying military personnel were attacked while waiting at traffic lights at an intersection, the Turkish military said while condemning the “contemptible and dastardly” attack.
Ankara Gov. Mehmet Kiliclar said authorities believe that the explosion was caused by a “bomb-laden vehicle.”
News reports said some cars caught fire and dozens of ambulances were sent to the scene. Dark smoke could be seen billowing from a distance. At least four of the injured were military personnel, private NTV television reported.
It was not clear who was behind the bombing Wednesday. Kurdish rebels, the Islamic State group and a leftist extremist group have carried out attacks in the country recently.
In October, suicide bombings blamed on Islamic State targeted a peace rally outside the main train station in Ankara, killing 102 people in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years.
Wednesday’s attack comes at a tense time when the Turkish government is facing an array of challenges. A fragile peace process with the Kurdish rebels collapsed in the summer. The Turkish security forces have been engaged in large-scale operations against Kurdish militants in the southeast since December, imposing controversial curfews in flash-point areas, and the fighting has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
Turkey has also been helping efforts led by the United States to combat the Islamic State group in neighboring Syria, and has faced several deadly bombings in the last year that were blamed on Islamic State.
The Syrian war, meanwhile, is raging along Turkey’s southern border. Recent airstrikes by Russian and Syrian forces have prompted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to flee to Turkey’s border. Turkey so far has refused to let them in, despite being urged to do so by the United Nations and European nations, but is sending aid to Syrian refugee camps right across the border.
Turkey, which is already home to 2.5 million Syrian refugees, has also been a key focus of European Union efforts to halt the biggest flow of refugees to the continent since World War II. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of refugees leave every night from Turkey to cross the sea to Greece in smugglers’ boats.
After the attack, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu canceled a visit to Brussels Wednesday evening and attended a security meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.
The government meanwhile imposed a gag order that bans media organizations from broadcasting or printing graphic images of the dead or injured from the scene of the explosion. Turkey has imposed similar bans after previous attacks.
Last month, 11 German tourists were killed after a suicide bomber affiliated with the Islamic State detonated a bomb in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. More than 30 people were killed in a suicide attack in the town of Suruc, near Turkey’s border with Syria, in July.
Wednesday’s bloodshed came on the heels of a string of attacks in Turkey, blamed on jihadis but also on Kurdish rebels.
The bomb aimed at a convoy of military service vehicles, Ankara Gov. Kiliclar said, quoted by the CNN-Turk and NTV channels.
The powerful blast was heard all over the city, sending residents to their balconies in panic, an AFP correspondent said.
The army said the attack took place at 1631 GMT and had targeted “service vehicles carrying army personnel.” It did not give a toll.
“The terror attack was carried out when the vehicles were waiting for traffic lights at a road junction,” it added.
Ambulances and fire engines were sent to the scene, which is near the Turkish military headquarters and the parliament. Wounded victims were seen being taken away on stretchers.
NTV television said the explosion happened near a residential block for top-level military staff.
Images from the scene showed firefighters trying to overcome a fierce blaze from wrecked service buses.
The spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Omer Celik, said on Twitter he strongly condemned the “act of terror.”
“But our determination to fight (terror) will become even greater,” he added.
Turkish police threw a security cordon around the area. A second blast later rocked the area, the AFP correspondent said, but media said this was police detonating a suspicious package.
There was no immediate indication about who carried out the attack.
The Islamic State group has been blamed for a string of bombings in the country since the middle of last year but the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has also killed dozens of soldiers in attacks mainly in the southeast of the country.
The capital was already on alert after 103 people were killed on Oct. 10 when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowd of peace activists in Ankara, the bloodiest attack in the country’s modern history.
Eleven people, all German tourists, were also killed on Jan. 16 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the tourist heart of Istanbul.
Those attacks were blamed on Islamic State jihadis, as were two other deadly bombings in the country’s Kurdish-dominated southeast earlier in the year.
Turkish authorities have in recent weeks detained several suspected Islamic State members, with officials saying they were planning attacks in Istanbul and Ankara.
But Turkey is also waging an all-out assault on the outlawed PKK which has repeatedly attacked members of the security forces with roadside bombings on their convoys in the southeast.
The PKK launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, initially fighting for Kurdish independence although now more for greater autonomy and rights for the country’s largest ethnic minority.
The conflict, which has left tens of thousands of people dead, looked like it could be nearing a resolution until an uneasy truce was shattered in July.
Turkish artillery in southern Turkey shelled positions of Kurdish fighters in Syria for the fifth day in the row on Wednesday in an escalating standoff, reports said.
Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) are merely the Syrian branch of the PKK and themselves terror groups.
Meanwhile the banned ultra-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) has also staged a string of usually small-scale attacks in Istanbul over the last few months.