Turkey Hunts for Answers, Buries Dead After Blasts Kill 38

ISTANBUL (AP) -
Forensic officials work at the scene of explosions near the Besiktas football club stadium after attacks in Istanbul, late Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. Two explosions struck Saturday night outside a major soccer stadium in Istanbul after fans had gone home, an attack that wounded about 20 police officers, Turkish authorities said. Turkish authorities have banned distribution of images relating to the Istanbul explosions within Turkey.(Ismail Coskun, IHA via AP)
Forensic officials work at the scene of explosions after attacks in Istanbul, early Sunday. (Ismail Coskun, IHA via AP)

Turkey declared a national day of mourning and began to bury its dead Sunday after twin blasts in Istanbul killed 38 people and wounded 155 others near a stadium. It was the latest large-scale assault to traumatize a nation confronting an array of security threats.

The bombs Saturday night targeted police officers, killing 30 of them along with seven civilians and an unidentified person, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters Sunday. He said 13 people had been arrested in connection with the “terrorist attack.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Turkey would overcome terrorism while Prime Minister Binali Yildirim ordered flags to fly at half-staff Sunday across the country and at Turkey’s foreign missions.

“We have once again witnessed tonight in Istanbul the ugly face of terror, which tramples on every value and decency,” Erdogan said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack but two officials said suspicions were focused on Kurdish terrorists.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told the private news channel CNN Turk that “arrows point to the PKK.” He was referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency. That preliminary assessment was echoed by the interior minister.

The first and larger explosion took place about 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the end of a game at the stadium. Erdogan said the timing of the attack aimed to maximize the loss of life.

Soylu said the first explosion was caused by a passing vehicle that detonated in an area where police special forces were located at the stadium exit. A riot police bus appears to have been the target.

Moment later, a person who had been stopped in nearby Macka Park committed suicide by triggering explosives, according to the minister.

The civilian death toll was lower because many had already left the Vodafone Arena Stadium when the blasts occurred. Witnesses also heard gunfire after the explosions.

Soylu said 136 people remained hospitalized Sunday after the attack, including 14 in intensive care.

Forensic experts in white uniforms worked overnight, scouring the vicinity of the stadium and the vast park where the suicide bombing took place. Glass from the blown-out windows of nearby buildings littered the pavement.

Authorities have determined that about 300-400 kilograms of explosives were used in the attack, Kurtulmus told CNN Turk.

Vehicle and pedestrian traffic tentatively resumed Sunday in the blast area, which municipal workers rushed to clean up.

At noon, to the mournful sound of trumpets, funeral services were held at Istanbul’s police headquarters for some of the slain police officers with the country’s top brass in attendance. Their comrades solemnly carried the coffins, which were draped in the Turkish flag, as mourners wept.

This year Istanbul has witnessed a spate of attacks attributed by authorities to the Islamic State terror group or claimed by Kurdish terrorists. A state of emergency is in force following a failed July 15 coup attempt.

Saturday’s incident marked one of the bloodiest to hit the bustling city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. A triple suicide-and-gun attack on the city’s Ataturk Airport in June killed 44 people and wounded scores of others. Kurdish-linked terrorists have claimed other deadly attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and areas of the southeast.

The steady stream of violence has delivered a bitter blow to Turkey’s tourism sector, a mainstay of the country’s economy. Soylu acknowledged the country was struggling against “many elements” trying to compromise its fight against terrorism.

Turkey is a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and its armed forces are active in neighboring Syria and Iraq. It is also facing a renewed conflict with an outlawed Kurdish movement in the southeast.

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People Democratic Party, or HDP, issued a statement “strongly condemning” the attacks and saying it “felt great sadness and shared in the sorrow.”

Turkish authorities, particularly the president, have routinely accused the party of being linked to the PKK and backing terrorism. The party, which had both of its leaders detained in terror probes and multiple elected officials arrested or removed from public service in the southeast, denies the charge.

The chair of the main opposition Republican People’s Party also condemned the attack.

Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Washington condemned the attack in “the strongest terms.”

“We stand together with Turkey, our NATO Ally, against all terrorists,” Price said.

The U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul urged its citizens to avoid the area in Istanbul.

Turkey’s media issued a temporary coverage ban citing national security concerns. It said “to avoid broadcasts that can result in public fear, panic or chaos, or that will serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”