REYHANLI, Turkey -- In one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey in recent years, two car bombs exploded near the border with Syria on Saturday, killing 43 and wounding 140 others. Turkish officials blamed the attack on a group linked to Syria, and a deputy prime minister called the neighboring country's intelligence service and military "the usual suspects."
The blasts, which were 15 minutes apart and hit the town of Reyhanli's busiest street, raised fears that Turkey could increasingly be drawn into Syria's brutal civil war.
Turkey already hosts Syria's political opposition and rebel commanders, has given shelter to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and in the past retaliated against Syrian shells that landed in Turkey.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said the assailants were from Turkey, but were linked to Syria's intelligence service.
"We have to a great extent completed our work toward identifying the assailants," he told reporters. "We have established that the organization and assailants have links to the pro-regime mukhabarat (intelligence) organization."
He did not name the group, but said the aim of the attack was to pit Turks against Syrian refugees in Reyhanli.
One of the car bombs exploded outside the city hall while the other went off outside the post office. Reyhanli, a main hub for Syrian refugees and rebels in Turkey's Hatay province, is just across the border from Syria's Idlib province. Private NTV television, citing unnamed security sources, said the explosions were remote-controlled and that plastic explosives were used.
Images showed people frantically carrying the wounded through the rubble-strewn streets to safety. Black smoke billowed from a tall building.
The explosions came days before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to travel to the U.S. for talks, which are expected to be dominated by the situation in Syria. The car bombings also follow allegations by Mr. Erdogan the Syrian regime has fired about 200 missiles tipped with chemical weapons.
Syrian mortar rounds have fallen over the border before, but if the blasts turn out to be linked to Syria it would be by far the biggest death toll in Turkey related to its neighbor's civil war.
Syria shares a more than 500-mile border with Turkey, which has been a crucial supporter of the Syrian rebel cause. Ankara has allowed its territory to be used as a logistics base and staging center for Syrian insurgents.
Mr. Atalay said 43 people were killed and 140 others were wounded in the blasts. There was no immediate information on the identities or nationalities of the victims.
The bombings" will increase the pressure on the U.S. president next week to do something to show support to Turkey when Erdogan visits him in Washington," said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute. "Washington will be forced to take a more pro-active position on Syria, at least in rhetoric, whether or not there is appetite for such a position here."
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said the attack may force Turkey to take action. "It should be a defining moment for Turkey," he said. "It has been supporting the rebels, and there has been strong rhetoric. But this may be a moment where it really has to assert itself -- if it is the Assad regime (behind the bombings), and it is quite conceivable it is."
Turkey's opposition criticized the government's policy on Syria, saying its active support of the rebels had put the country's security at risk.
"Erdogan's discourse of hatred toward Assad and provocations against the administration in Damascus is coming back to us in the form of attacks and provocations," said Devlet Bahceli, chairman of a nationalist opposition party.
The force of Saturday's explosions gutted some buildings, and the charred shells of cars littered the streets.
Khawla Sawah, the medical director of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations in Reyhanli, said the town's main hospital was full and many of the wounded were taken to the nearby city of Antakya and to a clinic set up by the Syrian medical relief group on Reyhanli's outskirts. The center received 11 wounded, including one Turk and 10 Syrians.
She said some of the injured told her that the cars that exploded had Syrian license plates.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a statement condemning the "murderous attack" in Reyhanli and said Washington "stands with the people and government of Turkey to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice."
First Published May 12, 2013 4:00 AM