Istanbul: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Syrian President Bashar Assad was a "more advanced terrorist" than the Islamic State group, despite the deadly attack on Istanbul's Ataturk Airport that Turkish officials blame on IS.
Speaking in the town of Kilis near the border with Syria, Erdogan said the Syrian leader was responsible for the deaths of some 600,000 of his own citizens and was the root cause of the war in Syria.
"He is a more advanced terrorist than a terrorist from the PYD or the YPG," Erdogan said. "He is a more advanced terrorist than Daesh." Erdogan was referring to Syrian Kurdish militia, which Ankara accuses of being a terror organization because of their affiliation with Turkey's Kurdish rebels, and to the IS group by its Arabic name.
Three militants armed with assault rifles and suicide bombs attacked one of the world's busiest airports on Tuesday night, killing at least 44 people. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Turkish officials say they believe it was the work of IS.
Turkish authorities have detained at least 24 people in raids in several Istanbul neighborhoods over possible connections to the attack. Seventeen other people were detained in the province of Gaziantep, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Erdogan paid an unannounced visit to the airport on Saturday, saying a prayer in front of a memorial set up for the victims, which features the pictures of airport employees killed in the rampage.
He later flew to Kilis, where the number of Syrian refugees is higher than the local Turkish population. IS
militants have also attacked the town with cross-border rocket fire, killing 21 people there since January.
Erdogan said countries he did not name were supporting the Syrian Kurdish militia and the IS in a bid to prevent democracy in Syria and for their "dirty calculations" in the region. He also announced that his government would allow Syrian refugees in Turkey to take on Turkish citizenship.
Turkey has been accused of long turning a blind eye to jihadi fighters who crossed into Syria from Turkish territory in the hope that they would hasten Assad's downfall. Turkey has also been accused of not doing enough to fight IS, despite allowing the US-led coalition to use a key air base to conduct air strikes against jihadists.
Turkey denies the accusations but such statements from Erdogan help reinforce beliefs that fighting IS is not a priority for Ankara despite the extremist groups' attacks on Turkish territory.