Thursday, November 20, 2003

ISTANBUL — Suspected al Qaeda suicide bombers, using trucks loaded with explosives, struck the British Consulate and a British bank yesterday, killing at least 27 and wounding nearly 450 — the second attack here in less than a week linked to the top Islamist terrorist network.

The strike, coming as President Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, marked a further escalation of al Qaeda’s campaign against Muslim nations with close ties to the United States and other Western nations. Besides Turkey, Saudi Arabia has been attacked by terrorists recently.

In twin explosions 10 minutes apart, the bombers detonated trucks laden with explosives at the London-based HSBC bank and at the consulate.

British Consul-General Roger Short was killed in the consulate attack, which destroyed an office annex at the British diplomatic outpost. The other explosion gutted the mirrored-glass facade of the bank’s 18-story skyscraper.

The attacks, just five days after twin suicide bombings at two Istanbul synagogues killed 23 and injured hundreds, marked the worst terrorist bombings in the Muslim nation’s history.

Turkey put its military on the highest alert and briefly deployed army troops in the streets.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to crush the terrorists and condemned the perpetrators for carrying out the attacks during the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Turkey will be like a fist,” Mr. Erdogan vowed during a hastily arranged press conference.

In London, Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush condemned the attacks as an attempt to intimidate and demoralize the free nations of the world.

“They’re not going to succeed,” Mr. Bush said in an appearance with Mr. Blair, the staunchest U.S. ally in the global war on terror.

Mr. Bush expressed grief over the attacks. “Great Britain and America and other free nations are united … in our determination to fight and defeat this evil wherever it is found.”

Mr. Blair told the London news conference that the “terrorist outrage” showed that democracy was fighting a war against evil.

Late yesterday, Britain said it had new information that further attacks might be attempted and warned its nationals to stay away from major cities in Turkey.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the strikes bore “all the hallmarks of the international terrorism operations practiced by al Qaeda and associated organizations.”

Mr. Straw flew into Istanbul late yesterday and walked the grounds of his country’s consulate to take a firsthand look.

A caller to Anatolian news agency claimed responsibility on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and a Turkish group known as the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front.

In New York, the dollar and stocks sank, and investors fled to the relative safety of gold and government debt.

The first of yesterday’s blasts hit a wide avenue in the financial district, flanked by the towering HSBC building and a popular new glass-fronted shopping mall. The target of the second, the consulate, was set in a narrow street of older stone buildings in an area brimming with shops, bars and restaurants.

At both bomb sites, men and women spattered with blood wept amid a chaos of wrecked cars and dismembered bodies.

Some saw a geopolitical motive behind the attacks, believing that the targets were not coincidental.

“The synagogues the other day, the Brits today. It seems like someone is trying to tell the Turks that they should be punished for the support to Israel, for the support to the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq,” Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller told the Associated Press.

Turkish bystanders, still half-dazed, wandered through packs of reporters last night at a police barricade outside the British Consulate.

“Everybody’s asking, ‘Why Turkey?’” said Baris Karaoglan, a 28-year old tour-group operator.

Mr. Karaoglan said he was browsing in a store about 320 yards away from the British mission at the time of the blast. “It was like an earthquake,” he said. “Everything was shaking.”

When he emerged, he saw cars buried in debris and sheets of paper floating above in the air. The consulate is located just a half block off the Istiklal, the consumer heart of modern Istanbul. Normally a bustling pedestrian avenue mixing Western clothing boutiques with Mediterranean restaurants bubbling with Turkish folk sing-alongs, the boulevard was eerily quiet hours after the blast.

With countries issuing warnings on tourists traveling to Turkey in the wake of the blasts, a critical source of foreign currency for the struggling Turkish economy seemed in jeopardy.

The young tour operator said he didn’t expect much work. “All tourist plans will be canceled.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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