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Nine arrested over blasts near Turkey-Syria border

Relatives mourn as they carry the coffin of Ogulcan Tuna, 18, in Reyhanli, Turkey, on May 12, 2013
Relatives mourn as they carry the coffin of Ogulcan Tuna, 18, in Hatay, Turkey, on Sunday. Turkey on Sunday said it has arrested nine people over the twin car bombings that left at least 46 people dead in a Turkish town near the Syrian border, as Damascus

Turkey on Sunday said it has arrested nine people over the twin car bombings that left at least 46 people dead in a Turkish town near the Syrian border, as Damascus rejected allegations that it was behind the attack.

Cranes were seen lifting debris from buildings destroyed by Saturday's blasts in Reyhanli, a major Turkish hub for Syrian refugees and rebels.

The attacks were the deadliest to hit Turkey since the Syria conflict began two years ago and apparently provoked a backlash against Syrian refugees as dozens of cars were wrecked by rampaging crowds, according to witnesses.

The Reyhanli blasts have raised fears that Turkey has been drawn into the Syrian conflict.

Can Dundar, a columnist at Turkey's Milliyet newspaper, wrote: "Turkey seems to be sinking into the Syrian swamp... It has become a stakeholder in this civil war by directly supporting the opposition."

Funerals in the Reyhanli cemetery on May 12, 2013 of victims of the previous day's blasts
Funerals in the Reyhanli cemetery on Sunday of victims of the previous day's blasts.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told a televised news conference Sunday that nine people have been held for questioning over the bombings, saying there have been confessions and that the suspects belong to "a terrorist organisation in contact with Syrian intelligence".

Atalay also said that 38 of the 46 people killed in the blasts have been identified, of whom 35 were Turkish and three were Syrian.

Officials say dozens more were injured in the explosions.

Turkey's Interior Minister Muammer Guler said: "We have identified those who organised it, those who carried out recognition (efforts), those who placed the vehicles".

Syria on Sunday rejected claims that it was behind the attack.

A man walks through rubble in a street in Reyhanli  on May 12, 2013 a day after a car bombing in the town.
A man walks through rubble in a street in Reyhanli on May 12, 2013 a day after a car bombing in the town.

"Syria did not commit and would never commit such an act because our values would not allow that," Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi told a press conference broadcast by state television.

"It is (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan who should be asked about this act... He and his party bear direct responsibility," he added.

Turkey, a member of NATO, distanced itself from its erstwhile ally soon after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started cracking down on pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Ankara has since become a rear base for the Syrian rebellion and Damascus has already been blamed for a string of attacks on Turkish soil.

The attack sowed panic in Reyhanli, a town of about 60,000 people.

Relatives mourn on May 12, 2013 at the graves of victims of a car bombing in Reyhanli the previous day
Relatives mourn on May 12, 2013 at the graves of victims of a car bombing in Reyhanli the previous day.

"I heard the first blast, walked out, thinking it was a missile being fired from Syria. Then I found myself on the ground, my arms and right leg hurting, my ears ringing. It must have been the second bomb," said Hikmet Haydut, a 46-year-old coffee shop owner who had minor injuries to his head and body. "I am alive, but all I have is gone."

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on a visit to Berlin, said it was "not a coincidence" the bombings occurred as international diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis were intensifying.

The United States and Russia, one of the few remaining supporters of Assad's regime, pledged this week to relaunch efforts to solve the conflict, which the United Nations estimates has killed 80,000 people since March 2011.

Erdogan, who earlier this month branded Assad a "butcher", is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday.

The West swiftly denounced the attacks.

French President Francois Hollande condemned them "in the strongest possible terms" while UN leader Ban Ki-moon said the perpetrators must be "brought to justice".

US Secretary of State John Kerry also condemned the "awful news" and said it struck "an especially personal note for all of us given how closely we work in partnership with Turkey, and how many times Turkey's been a vital interlocutor at the centre of my work as secretary of state these last three months".

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition National Coalition said the attacks were designed to drive a wedge between Turks and Syrians and echoed Ankara's claims that supporters of Assad were behind the carnage.

"What happened in Reyhanli... proves the extent of this murderous regime's criminality, and of the danger it poses to its neighbours, peace and stability in the region," the SNC said.

Earlier, the opposition said the bombings were "a desperate and failed attempt to sow discord" with Turkey, which is hosting at least 326,000 Syrian refugees.

Reyhanli is in southern Turkey near the Cilvegozu crossing opposite Syria's rebel-controlled Bab al-Hawa border post, the busiest crossing between the two countries.

The border area has witnessed a number of deadly attacks as the conflict in Syria spills over into Turkey.

In February, a car bomb attack at Cilvegozu which Turkey blamed on Syrian intelligence agents killed 17 people and wounded 30.

Earlier this month, one police officer was killed and six other people wounded when Syrians trying to cross into Turkey opened fire in a border buffer zone.

Saturday's attack came as Turkey ramped up its rhetoric against Assad, with Erdogan accusing the regime in Damascus of deploying chemical weapons, crossing a "red line" set by Obama.

"It is clear the regime has used chemical weapons and missiles," he told NBC News on Thursday, without elaborating but urging the United States to take more action against Syria.

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