Turkey captures bombing suspect in Syrian regime heartland

Stuart WILLIAMS and Fulya OZERKAN
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Nazik was captured in the Syrian city of Latakia -- a stronghold of support for Assad that has never slipped from his control

The Turkish secret service staged an operation deep in the heartland of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to capture and bring back to Turkey the prime suspect in a 2013 bombing, officials said Wednesday.

Turkish citizen Yusuf Nazik, who is accused of planning the May 2013 Reyhanli bombing, was apprehended in an operation carried out by the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).

He was captured in the Syrian city of Latakia -- a stronghold of support for Assad that has never slipped from his control -- and then brought to Turkey, the Anadolu news agency said.

Over 50 people were killed in the bombing -- one of the deadliest in Turkey's modern history -- in Reyhanli, on the border with Syria in the southern Turkish province of Hatay.

Ankara at the time blamed the attack on the regime of Assad and allied groups. The Syrian government rejected the charges.

Anadolu also published a video of Nazik, dressed in a tracksuit top and jeans and standing by a Turkish flag, giving what it described as a "confession", saying he was behind the attack and it had been ordered by the Syrian regime.

He said a man "working for Syrian intelligence" had given the order for the bombing and called on others in Syria to "return before it is too late", saying Turkey will "look after us".

Nazik, 34, from the Turkish southern city of Antakya, said he had been responsible for making contact with Syrian intelligence, bringing the explosives inside Turkey and obtaining the vehicles used.

- 'Assad's bastion' -

A senior Turkish official, who asked not to be named, confirmed Anadolu's report and said the testimony of Nazik "confirmed long-standing rumours about the Assad regime's active role in the bombing".

Turkey has been an implacable foe of Assad throughout the over seven-year Syrian conflict and has repeatedly called for his ouster.

Yet Ankara has also been working in recent months more intensely with its main allies Russia and Iran on ending the conflict.

Attention is now focused on Turkey's reaction should the regime go ahead with a planned assault on the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warning such a move could lead to a humanitarian disaster.

That the operation to capture Nazik took place in Latakia is significant as the city has been a regime stronghold throughout the civil war and not an area where Turkey would usually have any influence.

There were no further details on whether the operation had been carried out with or without the knowledge of the Syrian authorities or Russian forces who are present in the area.

But Anadolu said no logistical or intelligence support had come from "any foreign state" and the "detection, monitoring, operation and transfer" had been carried out entirely by MIT units.

"A giant operation in Assad's bastion," said the pro-government Hurriyet daily.

No date was given for Nazik's capture. Pictures published by Anadolu showed the apparent moment of capture with an MIT operative with his forearm around the suspect's neck.

- 'Never stop hunting' -

The operation is the latest in a series of high-profile swoops by the MIT which is led by Hakan Fidan, a shadowy figure regarded as hugely loyal to Erdogan.

It has brought back to Turkey in recent weeks suspects accused of links to preacher Fethullah Gulen, the accused mastermind of the 2016 failed coup seeking to topple Erdogan, from several countries including Kosovo, Gabon, Moldova and Ukraine.

"Nazik's capture and repatriation should serve as a reminder to all other criminals that we will never stop hunting them," said the senior Turkish official.

"We will spare no effort to find you, catch you, and bring you to justice," added the official.

Ankara is keenly aware of the boost to public morale of successful secret service operations after the audacious 1999 nabbing in Kenya of Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan gave a huge boost to the government of the time.