In a daring raid into the Syrian regime heartland of Latakia, Turkish agents snatched the key suspect in one of Turkey’s worst terror attacks and brought him over the border, state media reported.
Turkey's National Intelligence Organisation carried out a "pinpoint operation" to arrest Yusuf Nazik, who reportedly confessed to planning the 2013 car bombing in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli that killed 53 people.
According to the state-run Anadolu news agency, Mr Nazik, 34, told Turkish investigators that Syrian intelligence orchestrated the attack.
Turkey’s intelligence service, known as MIT, reportedly carried out the operation to capture him “without the help of foreign agencies” but it provided no details on when or how Mr Nazik was taken.
Ankara and Damascus are on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, with Turkey backing rebel groups and sending soldiers to the Syria's northeast. Turkey is also trying to prevent a looming Syrian government offensive backed by Russian and Iranian allies on Idlib province.
In a video released by the Turkish government, Mr Nazik wore a blue tracksuit jacket and jeans, and stood next to a Turkish flag. He called on other suspects to surrender and warned Turkey would hold the Bashar Al Assad regime to account for the 2013 attack.
“I was not able to escape from the Turkish state,” he said in the video released on Wednesday. “I am calling out to my friends in Syria; turn back while there still is time. The Turkish state will protect us. I am calling out to the state of Syria; the Turkish state will make you pay eventually.”
The attack on May 11, 2013, involved a car bomb parked outside municipal offices which left a large crater in the ground and destroyed nearby buildings when it exploded. Minutes later, a second car bomb detonated outside a post office less than a mile away. The second blast sent vehicles flying through the air.
Most of the casualties were Turks but a number of Syrian refugees were also killed in the blasts only miles from the Syrian border.
Mr Nazik, a Turkish citizen from nearby Antakya, was one of several suspects wanted in connection with the attack. He reportedly admitted scouting targets, taking explosives across the border from Syria as well as obtaining and loading the vehicles used in the attack, Anadolu said.
He identified his Syrian contact as an intelligence officer called Mohammed who went by the code name Hadji.
“We take the information provided by Yusuf Nazik about the involvement of Syrian intelligence operatives in the 2013 Reyhanli attack very seriously,” a senior Turkish government official said.
“His testimony corroborates long-standing rumours about the Assad regime’s active role in the bombing, which killed 53 innocent people.
“Nazik’s capture and repatriation should serve as a reminder to all other criminals that we will never stop hunting them. We will spare no effort to find you, catch you, and bring you to justice.”
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul praised the operation. “Our state will come after every kind of terrorist group and our independent judiciary will deliver fair punishment, wherever the culprit may be,” he said.
Turkish intelligence has carried out a series of overseas operations in recent months targeting those it suspects of belonging to a group said to be behind a 2016 coup attempt.
In February, a court in Ankara passed life sentences against nine people involved in the Reyhanli attack. Thirteen others received terms of up to 15 years.
The Syrian state is suspected of involvement in several bombings near and across its borders in the early years of the civil war. In Lebanon, a double suicide bombing in the country’s second city of Tripoli on August 23, 2013 killed at least 47 people and wounded more than 500 others. The attack was the biggest and deadliest bombing since the country’s 15-year civil war.
In a 44-page indictment issued in 2016, Lebanese judge Alaa Khatib identified Syrian intelligence officers Mohammad Ali Ali from the "Palestine Branch" and Nasser Joubeen from the "Political Security Directorate" as the planners of the attack, the country’s National News Agency reported.