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Turkey cracks down, US offers help

Istanbul, Nov. 21 (Reuters): Turkey said today police had arrested several people over twin truck bomb attacks on British targets in Istanbul that killed 27 people, including Britain’s top diplomat in the city.

A statement purporting to come from a unit of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network said it carried out yesterday’s strikes on the British consulate and the London-based HSBC bank, five days after two similar attacks on Istanbul synagogues.

US President George W. Bush, on a state visit to Britain, vowed solidarity with Turkey, a key Nato ally long promoted by Washington as a model of Islamic democracy. But the US also joined Britain in warning its citizens to defer non-essential travel to Turkey, reflecting fears of further terror attacks in the country of 70 million.

“Some people have been arrested, but it’s too early to give any information about them,” Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul told a joint news conference with his visiting British counterpart, Jack Straw.

Turkish financial markets held their nerve, with the lira ending slightly firmer though the stock market remained shut.

Trade unions announced a series of “peace protests” in major Turkish cities tomorrow to express revulsion at the blasts, which have dented the image of this EU candidate on the road to recovery from a 2001 financial crisis. Newspaper headlines reflected the sense of national shock.

“Al Qaida is at war with Turkey,” declared the Radikal daily. Many Turks as well as Britons were killed or wounded.

Yesterday’s twin bombings killed 27 people, including British consul general Roger Short, and wounded more than 400. Tomorrow, two Istanbul synagogues were devastated by suicide truck bombs that killed 25 and wounded 300, making this the worst week of peacetime violence in Turkey’s modern history. The Turkish daily Hurriyet said seven people had been arrested over yesterday’s attacks, which it said were carried out by Turkish suicide bombers. A spokesman at the Istanbul governor’s incident room could not confirm the report.

HSBC Holdings Plc , Britain’s biggest company, said it had resumed service in Turkey today despite the blasts. HSBC Bank has about 160 branches in the country.

Other expatriates also sounded a note of defiance.

The HSBC headquarters stood in Istanbul’s affluent Levent district, which is dotted with skyscrapers hosting many leading Turkish banks and industrial groups as well as foreign firms.

“This is the heart of the Turkish economy. It is our Wall Street,” said banker Hikmet, 32, standing at a police barricade and straining to see the damage inflicted on HSBC by the blast.

Turkey’s National Security Council, an advisory body of political leaders and influential military commanders, was sure to focus on the attacks and counter-measures at a meeting in the capital, Ankara, which stretched into this evening.

But EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen said he hoped Turkey would not reverse EU-inspired liberal reforms aimed at winning a date to start entry talks with the wealthy bloc.

In a telephone conversation, Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan “affirmed that they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against terrorism”, the White House said.

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