Istanbul suicide attack highlights Turkey's struggle with militant groups

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Istanbul suicide attack in the heart of the city, which injured 17 civilians and 15 police, Sunday.

Police forensic officers inspect the scene as firefighters and ambulances wait after an explosion close to Taksim Square where riot police were stationed in case of demonstrations in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday. The Istanbul suicide attack wounded 32 people.

A suicide bomber targeted Turkish police in the heart of Istanbul on Sunday, killing himself, injuring 32, and prompting police gunfire.

Chaos erupted midmorning in Taksim Square, the popular shopping and pedestrian center of Turkey’s economic capital, when a male suicide bomber detonated plastic explosives while attempting to board a bus full of riot policemen, authorities here said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though a unilateral cease-fire declared by Kurdish PKK rebels 2-½ months ago was set to expire on Sunday. Turkey is also home to an array of small non-Kurdish militant groups, from those on the far left to right-wing nationalists to Islamists.

Authorities suggested that they had clear suspicions about which group was responsible, and why, but would not be immediately drawn out on who was to blame.

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“Those who threaten Turkey’s peace, security, and development will not be tolerated,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, in a speech in Mardin, in the mostly Kurdish southeast. “These kinds of attacks will not stop Turkey reaching its goals of peace, brotherhood, and development. We are together; we are brothers.”

Which group carried out the attack?

Istanbul's Governor Avni Mutlu said a “terrorist organization” was behind the attack, but gave no further details about who was responsible.

Interior Minister Besir Atalay, on a trip to China, said the government had “certain suspicions, certain evidence” about who to blame, but at this point would go no further.

The bombing took place in Istanbul’s main square, a few strides from a monument dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923. The square was draped in Turkish flags to mark Republic Day, which was celebrated on Friday.

The PKK and the cease-fire

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which fought the Turkish military viciously in the 1980s and 1990s for more Kurdish rights, and is often referred to by Turkish officials as “terrorists” – said it could not continue a cease-fire announced in mid-August.

The group has declared it would no longer target civilians, and last week a top commander based in northern Iraq said the PKK preferred to continue the cease-fire if the government would commit to dialogue.

“We are actually in favor of a permanent cease-fire,” Murat Karayilan told the Radikal newspaper. “We are waiting. We have not decided yet.”

Scene of the blast

At the scene of the blast, glass covered nearby sidewalks and streets, and forensic teams scoured the area for evidence before taking away the remains of the bomber.

Police reported that a second explosive device was found and failed to detonate. Close to the explosion site, a small propane tank typically used for cooking in Turkish homes, and a large cook pot could be seen.

Police buses and water canon vehicles are regularly parked in the spot, and serve as a base for the riot police who constantly patrol the thousands of tourists and Turks who daily walk along the popular Istiklal pedestrian avenue, which starts at Taksim.

“Do you know what happened?” shouted one Turkish policeman in anger, as he forced people away moments after the blast. “My friend, he is there. He is dead.”

That panicked reaction overstated the toll of the attack, although 17 civilians and 15 police were wounded, two of them critically. It was the third suicide attack ever to hit the square, which is often used to stage political protests of all kinds.

The first such attack came in 1999 and injured 10 people, among them three policemen. No claim of responsibility was ever made.

The second came in 2001, when a leftist militant group, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), killed two policemen and a civilian, and wounded eight others. The Anatolia news agency reported on Sunday morning that, prior to the bomb blast, some 16 members of the DHKP/C were arrested in raids in Istanbul and elsewhere.

Though Taksim Square has occasionally been targeted, explosions have in years past repeatedly rocked Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, as well as sites across southeast Turkey where ethnic Kurds are in the majority.

Five soldiers were killed last June when their bus was bombed in a suburb of Istanbul. A faction of Kurdish militants called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons and claiming loyalty to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, but disavowed by the mainstream PKK, said it was responsible.

In November 2003, Istanbul was struck by multiple bombings claimed by Al Qaeda, which killed 62 and targeted the British consulate, the HSBC bank, and two synagogues.

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