ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish police said on Monday they arrested a Syrian woman suspected of having links to Kurdish militants and confessed to planting a bomb that exploded on a busy pedestrian avenue in Istanbul, killing six people and in injuring dozens of others. Kurdish activists have strongly denied any connection to the attack.
Sunday’s blast hit Istiklal Avenue, a popular thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants that leads to Taksim Square.
“Not long ago, the person who left the bomb was arrested by our Istanbul police teams,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced Monday morning. Police later identified the suspect as Ahlam Albashir, a Syrian citizen.
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The Istanbul Police Department said videos from around 1,200 security cameras were reviewed and raids were carried out at 21 locations. At least 46 other people were also arrested for questioning.
The suspect reportedly left the scene in a taxi after leaving TNT-type explosives on the crowded avenue, police said.
Sunday’s explosion was a shocking reminder of the anxiety that gripped Turkey when such attacks were common. The country was hit by a series of deadly bomb attacks between 2015 and 2017, some by the Islamic State group, others by Kurdish militants seeking autonomy or independence.
Police say the suspect told them during questioning that she had been trained as a “special intelligence officer” by the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, as well as the Syrian Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party. and its armed wing. She entered Turkey illegally through the Syrian border town of Afrin, police said.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party denied any involvement in a statement, saying it was not targeting civilians. In Syria, the main Kurdish militia, the People’s Defense Units, has denied any connection to the suspect. The group argued that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was trying to garner international support for his plans to launch another incursion into northern Syria ahead of next year’s elections.
Soylu said the suspect would have fled to neighboring Greece had she not been arrested.
Asked about Soylu’s comments, Greek government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou reiterated Greece’s condolences and stressed that the government “stands firmly against any terrorist act. What happened in Istanbul is odious and reprehensible.
Earlier, Soylu said security forces believed the instructions for the attack came from Kobani, the Kurdish-majority town in northern Syria that borders Turkey. He said the attack would be avenged.
“We know what message those who carried out this action want to convey to us. We got that message,” Soylu said. “Don’t worry, we will refund them heavily.”
Soylu also blamed the United States, saying a message of condolence from the White House was akin to “a killer showing up first at a crime scene.” Turkey has been infuriated by US support for Syrian Kurdish groups.
In its message, the White House said it strongly condemned the “act of violence” in Istanbul, adding, “We stand with our NATO ally (Turkey) in the fight against terrorism.”
Turkish television broadcast footage purporting to show the main suspect being held in a house where she is believed to have been hiding. He said police searching the house also seized large amounts of cash, gold and a gun.
The minister told reporters that Kurdish militants allegedly gave the order to kill the main suspect to avoid evidence being traced to them.
Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said of the 81 people hospitalized in the attack, 57 have been released. Six of the injured were in intensive care and two of them were in life-threatening condition, he said. The six people killed in the blast were from three families and included children aged 9 and 15.
Funerals were held on Monday for the six victims, including Adem Topkara and his wife Elif Topkara, who had left their two young children with their aunt and were walking around Istiklal at the time of the blast.
Istiklal Avenue was reopened to pedestrian traffic at 6 a.m. Monday after police completed inspections. People began laying carnations at the site of the blast, as the street was decorated with hundreds of Turkish flags.
Mecid Bal, a 63-year-old kiosk owner, said his son was caught in the blast and called him from the scene.
“Dad, there are dead and wounded lying on the ground. I was crushed when I got up” to run, he quoted.
Restaurant worker Emrah Aydinoglu was talking on the phone when he heard the explosion.
“I looked out the window and saw people running,” the 22-year-old said. “People were lying on the ground, already visible from the corner of the street (I was inside). They were trying to call (for help), whether it was an ambulance or the police. Everyone was screaming and crying.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been waging an armed insurgency in Turkey since 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then.
Ankara and Washington both consider the PKK a terrorist group, but they differ on the issue of Syrian Kurdish groups, which fought against IS in Syria.
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In recent years, Erdogan has waged a massive campaign of repression against activists as well as Kurdish lawmakers and activists. Amid soaring inflation and other economic problems, Erdogan’s counter-terrorism campaign is a key rallying point for him ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey.
Following attacks between 2015 and 2017 that left more than 500 civilians and security personnel dead, Turkey launched cross-border military operations in Syria and northern Iraq against Kurdish militants, while also cracking down on Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists at home.
“In almost six years, we have not experienced a serious terrorist incident like the one we experienced last night in Istanbul. We are ashamed before our nation in this regard,” Soylu said.
Turkey’s media watchdog imposed restrictions on reporting on Sunday’s explosion – a move that prohibits the use of videos and close-up photos of the explosion and its aftermath.
Access to Twitter and other social media sites was also restricted on Sunday.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara. Robert Badendieck in Istanbul, Hogir Al Abdo in Raqqa, Syria, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Elena Becatoros in Athens, contributed to it.