PARIS - Turkish news media reported yesterday that two suspects in the suicide bombings that rocked Istanbul last month took direct orders from a senior al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, after having met him earlier this year.
The reports came a day after Turkey's deputy prime minister, Abdullatif Sener, told reporters that the suicide bombers and their associates "are linked to al-Qaida," the strongest assertion yet by a Turkish government official that the bombings were the work of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Reliable information about the investigation into the bombings has been spotty because of a government blackout on the case. Turkish news reports on the subject are based on leaked information, some of which has already proved inaccurate.
The whereabouts of al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian-born surgeon who merged his own militant force with that of bin Laden's in 1998, has been uncertain since late 2001, when he was in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida has been suspected ever since four bombings killed 61 people outside two Istanbul synagogues on Nov. 15 and outside the headquarters of a British bank and the British consulate five days later. Though Turkey has been the target of attacks in the past, it has experienced nothing on the scale seen last month.
The latest information reportedly comes from the interrogation of a man arrested last week while trying to cross from Turkey into Iran. He was charged over the weekend with "armed attempts to destroy constitutional order," an offense that carries a possible life sentence. Police have said that the man, identified only by his initials, YP, had surveyed the site for one of the synagogue bombings and gave the go-ahead for the attack.
Nearly all of Turkey's major newspapers have since identified YP as Yusuf Polat, born in 1974 in Turkey's southeastern province of Malatya.
Hurriyet, the country's largest newspaper, reported yesterday that Polat told authorities that Habib Aktas and Azad Ekinci, two members of a small Turkish al-Qaida cell, met with al-Zawahiri on several occasions. "They were the only ones to meet with Zawahiri," the newspaper quoted Polat as telling police. "They would meet at least three times a year, using false identity documents." According to the Hurriyet report, Polat testified that al-Zawahiri ordered the bombings.
Two other newspapers carried similar reports, though Turkish authorities have not commented on the information.