Turkish police said they have detained a Syrian woman with suspected links to Kurdish militants and that she confessed to leaving live explosives along the popular Isitikal Avenue in central Istanbul.
Police identified the suspect as Ahlam Albashir, a Syrian citizen.
Istiklal Avenue is a popular street lined with shops and restaurants that leads to Taksim Square.
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 detained for questioning.
The suspected allegedly departed 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 string of deadly bombings between 2015 and 2017, some by the Islamic State group, others by Kurdish militants who seek increased autonomy or independence.
Police said the suspect told them during her interrogation that she had been trained as a “special intelligence officer” by the outlawed 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 involvement in a statement, saying it did not target civilians. The main Kurdish militia group in Syria, the People’s Defense Units denied any links to the suspect. The group maintained that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was trying to gather international support for his plans to launch a new incursion into northern Syria ahead of next year’s elections.
Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu said the suspect would have fled to neighbouring Greece if she hadn't been detained.
“We know what message those who carried out this action want to give us. We got this message,” Soylu said. “Don’t worry, we will pay them back heavily.”
Soylu also blamed the United States, claiming that a condolence message from the White House was akin to “a killer being first to show up at a crime scene.” Turkey has been infuriated by U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish groups.
In its message, the White House said it strongly condemned the “act of violence" in Istanbul, adding: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO ally (Turkey) in countering terrorism.”
Turkish television broadcast footage purporting to show the main suspect being detained at a house where she was allegedly hiding. It said police searching the house also seized large amounts of cash, gold and a gun.
The minister told reporters that Kurdish militants had allegedly ordered the main suspect to be killed to avoid evidence being traced back to them.
Istanbul's governor Ali Yerlikaya said of the 81 people hospitalised in the attack, 57 have been discharged. Six of the wounded were in intensive care and two of them were in life-threatening condition, he said. The six killed in the blast were members of three families and included children ages 9 and 15.
Funerals were held 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 taking a stroll down Istiklal at the time of the blast.
Istiklal Avenue was reopened to pedestrian traffic at 6 a.m. Monday after police concluded inspections. People began leaving carnations at the site of the blast, while the street was decorated with hundreds of Turkish flags.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has fought 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 diverge on the issue of the Syrian Kurdish groups, which have fought against IS in Syria.
In recent years, Erdogan has led a broad crackdown on the militants, Kurdish lawmakers, and activists. Amid skyrocketing inflation and other economic troubles, Erdogan’s anti-terrorism campaign is a key rallying point for him before Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
Following the attacks between 2015 and 2017 that left more than 500 civilians and security personnel dead, Turkey launched cross-border military operations into Syria and northern Iraq against Kurdish militants, while also cracking down on Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists at home.
“In nearly six years, we have not experienced a serious terrorist incident like the one we experienced yesterday evening in Istanbul. We are ashamed in front of our nation in this regard,” Soylu said.
Turkey’s media watchdog imposed restrictions on reporting on Sunday’s explosion – a move that bans the use of close-up videos and photos of the blast and its aftermath.
Access to Twitter and other social media sites was also restricted on Sunday.
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