DEATH TOLL RISES TO 41 IN ISTANBUL AIRPORT ATTACK

Jun 29, 2016 by

Middle East

Video appears to show explosion in Istanbul airport
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Turkish officials say three attackers with suicide vests detonated their explosives at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 200 others. Editor’s note: This video contains graphic content. (TWP)
By Erin Cunningham June 29 at 12:22 PM

ISTANBUL — Turkish authorities combed through video clips and witness accounts Wednesday, seeking to reconstruct how three suicide bombers laid siege to the country’s largest airport, killing at least 41 people and raising questions over whether Turkey could step up its fight against the Islamic State.

At least 13 foreigners were killed in the late Tuesday attack, including five from Saudi Arabia and others from China, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. At least 239 people were wounded, and a national day of mourning was declared on Wednesday, officials said.

There has been no claim of responsibility. But Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the government believes the Islamic State was behind the assault at the international arrivals terminal of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

Analysts also said the attack bore the hallmarks of an Islamic State operation, including the use of multiple suicide bombers and the targeting of a major transportation hub serving international passengers. In March, coordinated bombings at Brussels Airport and a subway station in the city killed 32 people, and responsibility was later claimed by the Islamic State.TurkeySuicides2COL

[In Turkey, suicide bombers are targeting tourists]

Ataturk Airport handles more than 60 million passengers each year and is one of the busiest in the world. The attack — the fifth in Istanbul this year — also was another potential blow to Turkey’s vital tourism industry.

Turkey had long avoided direct confrontation with the Islamic State, which had used Turkey as a critical route for recruits and supplies. But in the past year, the two sides have exchanged fire along the frontier, and Islamic State bombers have hit targets in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

Turkey backs the U.S.-led coalition waging airstrikes against the Islamic State in neighboring Syria, but has so far held back from deploying warplanes to join the attacks. Turkey, however, allows U.S. aircraft to use Incirlik Air Base to fly bombing raids.

If a link to the Islamic State is confirmed, it would mark the group’s deadliest attack in Istanbul to date. Last year, officials blamed the Islamic State for twin suicide bombings that killed at least 100 people at a peace rally in the capital, Ankara.

Other factions, including Kurdish rebels, have also carried out attacks in Turkey in recent months.

Among the questions now is whether Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally, could escalate its role in the campaign in Syria against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Turkey is also a main supporter of Syrian rebels battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Islamic State-linked Amaq News, which often carries claims by the militants, made no mention of the Istanbul attacks but posted a graphic listing Turkey as among the countries with “covert units,” according to the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors online statements by extremist factions. The Amaq graphic also noted that Wednesday marked the second anniversary of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
What the scene at Istanbul airport looks like after gunfire, explosions
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Dozens are reported killed after suicide bombers attack the city’s Ataturk Airport.

“For a very long time, the relationship between the Islamic State and Turkey looked like a cold war, with both sides avoiding fighting each other,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If the group is behind the attack, “this would represent a significant escalation by the Islamic State toward Turkey,” he said. “This is a symbolic attack against the heart” of the country.

[Gallery: Chaos at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport]

A Turkish security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “our first assessments of the attacks make it look like this was an ISIS attack. The target and modus operandi are similar to what we’ve seen during the Brussels airport attacks.”

Turkey’s Dogan news agency said autopsies on the three bombers suggested they were foreign nationals, but gave no further details or cited its sources.

On Wednesday, workers cleared debris and broken glass from the terminal as airport operations resumed. Some international flights arrived as scheduled, but many others were either delayed or canceled.

An account by the state-run Anadolu news agency said one attacker entered the international departures area with an assault rifle, and detonated his explosives after being shot by a police officer.

About the same moment, a gunman entered the international arrivals terminal and set off explosives. A third attacker blew himself up outside the arrivals building, according to the account, Anadolu reported.

Ercan Ceyhan had just picked up relatives returning from their religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia when gunfire rang out. He saw police officers running toward the parking lot and urged his relatives to get into his car as quickly as possible. He relayed his story to CNN Turk, the news network’s Turkish-language channel.

“Just as we got in and started the car, there was a huge blast. It was a very big blast. The windows shattered,” Ceyhan said. “Then as we started to move the car, there was a second blast. It was very chaotic. People were screaming.”

Iran on Wednesday said it had suspended all flights to Ataturk Airport, the Reuters news agency reported. Flights by U.S. carriers were temporarily halted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

As in some airports in the region, bags and people are screened at the entrance to airport buildings as well as additional times inside.

There was “no security lapse at the airport,” Yildirim said at a news conference at the airport after the attack. He said the attackers arrived at the airport in a taxi.

“We urge the world, especially Western countries, to take a firm stand against terrorism,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “Despite paying a heavy price, Turkey has the power, determination and capacity to continue the fight against terrorism until the end.”

The attack on the airport “should serve as a turning point in the fight against terrorism around the world, and especially in Western countries,” he said.

[Turkey’s increasing tensions pose real dangers]

In recent days, Turkey has made two diplomatic moves with security implications around the region.

On Monday, it announced plans to rebuild ties with Israel six years after Israeli commandos waged a deadly raid on a Turkish aid flotilla off Gaza. Turkey and Israeli had been close military partners in past decades.

Turkey and Russia — whose relations are also strained — plan to renew talks on ways to resolve the Syrian crisis on Friday. The two countries are on opposite sides concerning Syria’s leadership, with Moscow backing Assad and Turkey supporting rebel groups.

Turkey’s tourism industry, meanwhile, has been crippled by the wave of violence, which has included blasts at some of Istanbul’s most popular spots for visitors. In April, the country suffered its steepest decline in tourism arrivals in 17 years, according to government data. Trading Economics, a global research firm, says tourism accounts for 8 percent of employment in Turkey. The airport is the hub of Turkish Airlines, the country’s official carrier.

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara had issued a travel advisory for Turkey, warning U.S. citizens of increased threats.

“We stand in solidarity with our NATO ally Turkey in combating the threat of terrorism,” said State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner. “Sadly, this murderous attack is only the latest in a series of attacks aimed at killing and maiming innocent civilians.”

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