ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkish authorities claimed to have foiled a probable suicide attack by a suspected Kurdish militant in Istanbul on Saturday as the military stepped up bombing raids on rebel hideouts in northern Iraq.
Police arrested a woman in her 30s in the heart of Turkey’s largest city who they said had been faking pregnancy and was carrying 8.8 kilogrammes (19 pounds) of explosives as well as several detonators.
The amount of material the suspect was carrying suggested she was preparing an attack on a scale as “murderous” as the twin bombings in Istanbul in July that killed 17 people, provincial governor Muammer Guler told reporters.
Police believed the planned attack would have been a suicide bombing “because of the belt she was wearing,” Guler said.
The governor said police had established the woman belonged to the “separatist terrorist organisation”, a reference to the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which was also blamed for the July attacks.
The arrest of the would-be attacker in Istanbul’s Sisli district came after Turkish jets bombed Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq overnight.
The Turkish military said 31 PKK positions in the Harkurk border area had been successfully hit in the bombing raids before they were then targeted with artillery fire.
It was the sixth such air raid since October 3 when PKK rebels attacked a Turkish border post resulting in the deaths of 17 soldiers and at least 23 militants, according to Turkish figures.
The Turkish parliament Wednesday extended the government’s mandate to order strikes against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq for a second year.
Under the mandate that parliament renewed, the Turkish army has carried out several air strikes in northern Iraq as well as a week-long ground incursion in February.
The operations were backed by intelligence from the United States, which is nevertheless worried that a large-scale Turkish intervention could destabilise Iraq’s relatively calm north.
Turkish officials charge that about 2,000 PKK rebels are holed up in the autonomous enclave, where they allegedly enjoy free movement, are tolerated by the region’s Kurdish leaders and obtain weapons and explosives for attacks in Turkey.
Iraqi authorities have repeatedly pledged to curb the PKK, but say the group takes refuge in mountainous regions difficult to access.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community.
As Ankara turned up the heat on the rebels, the European Union’s enlargement chief cautioned Saturday that measures targeting Kurdish rebels should not violate human rights, Anatolia news agency reported.
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he understood Ankara’s “legitimate” desire for stronger action against the PKK, whose separatist campaign has claimed some 44,000 lives since its inception in 1984.
“But I want to emphasize that basic rights and freedoms should in no way be harmed when steps are taken in the struggle against terrorism,” Rehn said.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Ankara would pursue dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds, saying that “an authority vacuum” in the rugged mountains along the Turkish border was helping the PKK to use the area as a safe haven.
“There is nothing more normal than having dialogue with the northern Iraqis… in the struggle against terrorism,” he told reporters.
Gul said Iraqi Kurds would also benefit, underscoring that “the stability, security and prosperity of Iraq goes through cooperation with Turkey.”
The Turkish government is currently reviewing requests by the security forces for several legal amendments to strengthen their hand against the PKK.
The army and the police have often complained that certain reforms limiting their powers, passed in recent years as part of Turkey’s efforts to align with EU norms in its bid to join the bloc, have hampered efforts against crime.