- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 21, 2012

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 (PKK) was not credible, according to Turkey’s NTV television. Kurdish militants previously have targeted civilians, and the PKK is deemed a terror 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,” Mr. Sahin said during a visit to Gaziantep. “The attack has links within and outside of Turkey.”

Turkey has conducted periodic airstrikes against Kurdish rebel bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, but now is 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 ministate in northern Iraq.