Turkey Attack: Death Toll in Istanbul Blasts Rises to 38, Kurdish Militants Claim Responsibility

Offshoot of PKK says two of its members died in attack outside soccer stadium. Netanyahu condemns attack, says Israel expects Turkey to condemn Palestinian terror.

Police and ambulances arrive at the site of an explosion in central Istanbul, Turkey, December 10, 2016.
MURAD SEZER/REUTERS

A Kurdish militant group claimed responsibility on Sunday for the Istanbul blasts the day before that killed 38 people and wounded 166 in an apparent coordinated attack on police outside a soccer stadium.

In a statement on its website, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) said it had carried out the attacks. TAK, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has taken responsibility for other deadly attacks in Turkey this year. 

TAK said Turkish people were not its direct target, and added that two of its members died during the attack outside the stadium.

The blasts on Saturday night – a car bomb outside the Vodafone Arena home to Istanbul's Besiktas soccer team followed by a suicide bomb attack in an adjacent park less than a minute later – shook a soccer-mad nation still trying to recover from a series of deadly bombing this year in cities including Istanbul and the capital Ankara.

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Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said that early indications pointed to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out a three-decade armed insurgency, mainly in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast. Ten people have been detained so far, he said.

"The arrows point at the PKK," Kurtulmus told broadcaster CNN Turk in an interview. "There will be an announcement once the investigations are over. We cannot say anything definite for now."

He said Turkey's allies should show solidarity with it in the fight against terrorism, a reference to the long-standing disagreement with fellow NATO member Washington over Syria policy. The United States backs the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Islamic State. Turkey says that the militia is an extension of the PKK and a terrorist group.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the beginning of Sunday's cabinet meeting that "Israel condemns any terror in Turkey, and expects Turkey to condemn any attack in Israel."

"The fight against terrorism must be mutually condemned and foiled, and this is the State of Israel's expectation from all the countries with which it has relations," he added.

Flags in Turkey were to be flown at half-mast and Sunday was declared a day of national mourning, the prime minister's office said in a statement.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a planned trip to Kazakhstan, his office said. Erdogan described the blasts as a terrorist attack on police and civilians. He said the aim of the bombings, two hours after the end of a match attended by thousands of people, had been to cause the maximum number of casualties.

"Nobody should doubt that with God's will, we as a country and a nation will overcome terror, terrorist organizations ... and the forces behind them," he said in a statement.

"It was like hell. The flames went all the way up to the sky. I was drinking tea at the cafe next to the mosque," said Omar Yilmaz, who works as a cleaner at the nearby Dolmabahce mosque, directly across the road from the stadium.

"People ducked under the tables, women began crying. Football fans drinking tea at the cafe sought shelter, it was horrible," he told Reuters.

Turkey faces multiple security threats. In addition to the Kurdish insurgency, it is also battling Islamic State as a member of the U.S.-led coalition against the Sunni hardline group. Less than a week ago, Islamic State urged its supporters to target Turkey's "security, military, economic and media establishment".

Victims mainly police

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said earlier the first explosion, which came around two hours after the end of the match between Besiktas and Bursaspor, was at an assembly point for riot police officers. The second came as police surrounded the suicide bomber in the nearby Macka Park.

Seven of those killed in the blasts were civilians. The other 30 were police officers, including a police chief and another senior officer. One was identified. Soylu said 17 of the wounded were undergoing surgery and another six were in intensive care.

Soylu said evidence gathered from the detonated vehicle had led to the 10 arrests.

A Turkish woman cries as people pay their respects outside the Vodafone Arena football stadium in Istanbul on December 11, 2016, a day after twin bombings near the home stadium of Besiktas football club.
BULENT KILIC/AFP

A Reuters photographer said many riot police officers were seriously wounded. Armed police sealed off streets. A police water cannon doused the wreckage of a burned-out car and there were two separate fires on the road outside the stadium.

Bursaspor said none of its fans appeared to have been injured. Both it and Besiktas condemned the bombings.

"Those attacking our nation's unity and solidarity will never win," Sports Minister Akif Cagatay Kilic said on Twitter. Transport Minister Ahmet Arslan, also writing on Twitter, described it as a terrorist attack.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned what he described as "horrific acts of terror", while European leaders also sent messages of solidarity. The United States condemned the attack and said it stood with its NATO ally.

The bombings come five months after Turkey was shaken by a failed military coup, in which more than 240 people were killed, many of them in Istanbul, as rogue soldiers commandeered tanks and fighter jets in a bid to seize power.

Istanbul has seen several other attacks this year. In June, some 43 people were killed and 239 others were wounded in an attack by three suicide bombers on the international terminal of Istanbul's Ataturk airport. Turkish officials suggested that the Islamic State group was behind the attack.

In March, three Israelis and an Iranian national were killed in a suicide attack in a central Istanbul shopping and tourism district. At least 36 people were wounded.