COPENHAGEN – Terrorism struck in the heart of Istanbul on Tuesday when a suicide bomber, allegedly affiliated with Islamic State, targeted a square with views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the early morning. Ten were killed and at least 15 were wounded in the attack.
All 10 victims were foreigners, according to Ankara, which noted the square is popular with tourists. One victim was a Peruvian and, later in the day, Berlin confirmed that nine of the dead were German nationals.
“It has been years since we were hit by terrorism as hard as we have been hit now in Istanbul,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
(Several dead, wounded after blast in central Istanbul)
Norway’s Foreign Ministry said one Norwegian man was wounded and was being treated in the hospital.
European governments, among them Denmark and Sweden, quickly responded by warning their citizens against imminent travel to Turkey.
The United States condemned the “heinous” assault against “Istanbul’s historic heart.”
The terrorist, according to White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, “struck Turks and foreign tourists alike. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of all those who have been killed and with those injured.”
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said the assailant is believed to have crossed into the country in past weeks from its border with Syria; however, he was not on Turkey’s watch list of suspected terrorists. Tuesday’s attack is the second terrorist strike against Turkey in recent months, after a bombing in Ankara on October 10 killed 102 and wounded hundreds.
Russia, which has sanctioned Turkey ever since Ankara shot down a Russian jet in Syrian airspace in November, condemned the attack and said the carnage should remind the world of the need to unite against terrorism.
Moscow says it is intervening in the Syrian war on behalf of its nominal president, Bashar Assad, in order to fight terrorist organizations – Islamic State chief among them.
And the attacker, who had not yet been identified by the time of this publication, was said by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to have been a member of Islamic State.
“Until we wipe out Daesh, Turkey will continue its fight at home and with coalition forces,” he said in comments broadcasted live on television, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Davutoglu said he had spoken by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to offer condolences and vowed Turkey’s fight against Islamic State, at home and as part of the US-led coalition, would continue.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the attack.
“This incident has once again shown that as a nation we should act as one heart, one body in the fight against terrorism,” Erdogan said. “Turkey’s determined and principled stance in the fight against terrorism will continue to the end.”
Tourist sites including the Hagia Sophia and nearby Basilica Cistern were closed on the governor’s orders, officials said.
At the scene, several bodies lay on the ground in the square, also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, in the immediate aftermath of the blast. It was not densely packed at the time of the explosion, according to a police officer working there, but small groups of tourists had been wandering around.
“We heard a loud sound and I looked at the sky to see if it was raining because I thought it was thunder but the sky was clear,” said Kuwaiti tourist Farah Zamani, 24, who was shopping at one of the covered bazaars with her father and sister.
Kursat Yilmaz, who has operated tours for 25 years from an office by the square, said, “We’re not surprised this happened here, this has always been a possible target.”
Ambulances ferried away the wounded as police cordoned off streets. The sound of the call to prayer rang out from the Blue Mosque as forensic police officers worked at the scene.
Davutoglu’s office imposed a broadcasting ban on the blast, invoking a law that allows for such steps when there is the potential for serious harm to national security or public order.
The attack raised fears of further damage to Turkey’s vital tourism industry, already hit by a diplomatic row with Moscow that has seen Russian tour operators cancel trips.Reuters contributed to this report.