In possible sign of detente, Netanyahu condemns Ankara blast

People carry an injured person after an explosion in the busy center of Turkish capital, Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned a terror attack in Ankara Sunday night and said Israel identifies with Turkey following the suicide car bombing that killed at least 34 people and injured over 100 more.

The Netanyahu statement was a seeming about-face from a previous reported Israeli refusal to condemn a suicide bombing in Istanbul in January, with some seeing the move as a sign of nearing detente between Jerusalem and Ankara after years of frayed ties.

The blast close to Ankara’s main square, Kizilay was the latest in a series of bombings to target Turkey, which comes as the country is faced with an array of issues, including renewed fighting with the Kurdish rebels, threats from the Islamic State group and a Syrian refugee crisis.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu condemns the large terror attack in Ankara which took the lives of innocent civilians and injured dozens,” read a statement from Netanyahu’s office sent late Sunday night. “Israel expresses solidarity with the Turkish people in the war against terrorism and calls on the international community to unite in the fight against terrorism.”

Netanyahu’s statement highlighted growing efforts between Jerusalem and Ankara to reestablish ties, which grew chilly over the last eight years amid a series of diplomatic tussles and other incidents, including the killing of 10 Turkish citizens by Israeli troops during a melee on a ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade in 2010.

In January, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported that Israeli officials had refrained from condemning a bombing at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque that killed 13 people, all foreigners, saying that Ankara had not condemned Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

The decision by unspecified government officials not to condemn the IS attack in the heart of historic Istanbul was made contrary to the recommendation of Foreign Ministry advisers, Channel 2 reported. The Prime Minister’s Office, however, said it wasn’t aware of such a disagreement and that Israel condemns all acts of terrorism.

Netanyahu was also silent on a bombing in Ankara three weeks ago that targeted buses carrying military personnel, killing 29 people. A Kurdish militant group which is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, claimed responsibility for the Feb. 17 attack. The government, however, said that attack was carried out by a Syrian Kurdish militia group in concert with the PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency.

Earlier this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey must accept that it needs Israel as the two countries seek to thrash out a deal on normalizing ties.

“Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region,” Erdogan said in remarks to Turkish reporters published in leading dailies. “And we too must accept that we need Israel. This is a reality in the region. If mutual steps are implemented based on sincerity, then normalization will follow.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with United States Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden's official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with United States Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden’s official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

French President Francois Hollande condemned the “vile attack” and said France stood alongside Turkey in the fight against terror. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “appalled.”

The US condemned the “horrific attack,” with the White House National Security Council pledging to work with Turkey “to confront the scourge of terrorism.”

Last week, US Vice President Joe Biden told Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem that Erdogan was eager to sign a rapprochement deal and put bad blood behind them, the Haaretz daily reported.

Reports have indicated the two countries are nearing a deal to resume once-warm ties, though they have become stuck on issues such as easing Israel’s blockade on Gaza. Officials in both Jerusalem and Ankara have expressed optimism that a deal will be reached soon.

The blast Sunday night occurred on Ankara’s main boulevard, close to Ankara’s main square and a park.

A senior Turkish government official said police believe that Kurdish militants carried out the suicide bombing that killed at least 34 people in Ankara, based on “initial indications.”

The official said one of the bombers was a woman. The official spoke on condition of anonymity on the grounds that the investigation was ongoing.

Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said 19 of the wounded were in serious condition. He said that 30 of the fatalities died at the scene, while the other four perished at hospitals. Two of the dead were believed to be the assailants, he added.

Forensic police work near burnt-out vehicles at the scene of a blast in Ankara on March 13, 2016. (AFP / EROL UCEM)

Forensic police work near burnt-out vehicles at the scene of a blast in Ankara on March 13, 2016. (AFP / EROL UCEM)

Interior Minister Efkan Ala said the attack, which came as Turkey prepared to launch large-scale military operations against Kurdish militants in two towns, wouldn’t deter the country from its fight against terrorism. He confirmed the blast as a car bomb that targeted civilians at bus stops on Ataturk Bulvari close to Kizilay square.

Ala said authorities had obtained evidence pointing to the group behind the attack, but said an announcement would be made after the investigation is completed, most probably on Monday.

The private NTV news channel said several vehicles caught fire following the blast which also shattered the windows of shops that line the boulevard and the square.

Dogan Asik, 28, said he was on a packed bus when the explosion occurred.

“There were about 40 people,” said Asik, who sustained injuries on his face and arm. “It (the bus) slowed down. A car went by us, and ‘boom’ it exploded.”

Police sealed off the area and pushed onlookers and journalists back, warning there could be a second bomb. Forensic teams were examining the scene.

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