Horrified by the deadly blasts on a Turkish border town, thousands of Turks have been taking to the streets to urge Ankara to rethink its outspoken support for rebels fighting against the Syrian regime.
Blowing whistles and shouting slogans, locals in Hatay province have been loudly venting their anger since at least 48 people were killed in twin blasts Saturday in Reyhanli, a major hub for refugees and rebels from neighboring Syria.
Ankara has blamed the massacre on the Damascus regime. But many locals in the southern province where the attack took place say the Turkish government is itself to blame for the bloodshed, claiming it was provoked by Ankara’s strong stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and by its support for the rebels seeking his ouster.
In one demonstration in Antakya on Monday, crowds could be heard shouting “Hands off Syria!” and “We do not want jihadist killers in our city”.
“All we want is for the government to drop its support to the Islamist rebels,” said 33-year-old Mahir Mansuroglu, the spokesman for the Hatay community centre that is spearheading the protests, which have drawn mainly leftists and nationalists but also many devout Muslims and Christians.
Fellow protester Necla Oncu, a 42-year old pharmacist, said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had let the blasts happen. “Erdogan only watched as a rogue attack inflicted the heaviest damage on Turkey ever.”
In a nearby street, a separate rally counting a few hundred followers was focussing on a different message, shouting slogans demanding better border security to protect Turkey from the spillover of Syria’s conflict.
Police cars could be seen trailing the different protests but rarely intervened as the events proceeded without incident in a city that is considered one of southeastern Turkey’s most peaceful and is known for its rich blend of ethnicities and religions.
But nerves have been rattled by the bomb blasts. In Reyhanli itself, where the rubble from the powerful explosions is still being cleared, locals say they feel tense and suspicious, panicking at the slightest sight of an unattended bag in the street.
Hatay is home to thousands of the roughly 400,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the violence in their own country over the past two years.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s blasts, some in Reyhanli lashed out at the refugees, though Turkish officials have warned against allowing Damascus to pit Turks against Syrians seeking a safe haven.
Hatay will always welcome Syrian refugees, Mansuroglu told AFP, but he added that it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of who was crossing over.
“People here are simply saying they do not want to see the long-bearded jihadists strutting around in our streets,” he said, vowing to keep up with the demonstrations “until the killers get the hell out of our city”.
Semir Baklaci of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, a fierce opponent of Ankara’s support for the rebels, said the protests “are the natural result of this government’s policy” on Syria.
Three days after the bombings, which Ankara says were carried out by a Turkish Marxist radical group affiliated with Damascus, the residents of Reyhanli were still filing missing person’s reports, while many speculated the real death toll was “at least double” the current estimate.
Baklaci described the bombings as “al-Qaeda sabotage”, speculating they were carried out by Qaeda-linked rebels seeking to spur a military intervention in Syria.
Other demonstrators speculated that the attack would be Erdogan’s “trump card” when he visits Washington this Thursday, where he is expected to call for NATO action against the Syrian regime amid growing concern over the conflict’s regional impact.
But many living along the long Turkish frontier with Syria say they are wary of an intervention, fearing it will bring more refugees and more unrest.
Ankara’s support for the rebels is what turned Reyhanli into “little Syria,” said Sadik Baba, a 37-year old tradesman.
“Just how many of us will have to die before they see the risks have grown just as high on our ‘safe side’?,” he said.
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