3 reportedly held as Turkey bomb toll rises to 17

Image: A wounded man lie on the ground after the explosion in Istanbul
A wounded man is tended to Sunday night after dual explosions rocked Istanbul, Turkey.EPA
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Police have detained three teenagers in connection to bomb blasts in a crowded Istanbul square that killed 17, a newspaper reported Monday.

Milliyet newspaper said the three, ages 16 and 17, were found in the basement of an apartment close to the scene of the explosions. Police detained them late Sunday following a tip from residents, the paper reported.

Turkish broadcaster NTV said the toll reached 17 after one person died from wounds sustained in the Sunday evening blasts in a working class neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul. More than a dozen people were seriously injured in the two explosions.

The newspaper report said the three teens had claimed they hid in the basement because they were frightened by the explosions.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan cancelled his weekly Cabinet meeting to travel to Turkey’s largest city to visit the site of the blasts, a government official told Reuters.

The site was still cordoned off early on Monday and police were not allowing people into the area other than shop owners, as forensic teams examined the scene and police investigated security cameras in the largely residential area.

“We know the killers,” Sabah newspaper said in a headline above a picture of bodies strewn across a busy pedestrian area where two bombs had torn through the crowds.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the deadliest in Turkey since 2003.

Kurdish separatists, far-left groups and Islamist militants have all carried out bombings in Istanbul in the past.

Several newspapers said police were focusing their investigations this time on the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, saying it has used similar explosives.

The Kurdistan Workers Party, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey and the European Union, has waged a deadly campaign for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey since 1984. The Kurdistan Workers Party usually does not target civilians.

Officials said an initial loud blast on Sunday evening brought people into the streets and a larger bomb hidden in a rubbish bin exploded 10 minutes later and 50 meters away in the Gungoren district, near Istanbul’s main international airport, where families gather in the evenings to dine and stroll.

Turkish financial markets weakened slightly on the news as well on concerns over the court case against the AK Party.

Turkey, which is seeking European Union membership, has been plunged into political and economic uncertainty by a court case over banning the ruling party.

The Constitutional Court, Turkey’s highest judicial body, began deliberating on Monday on whether the AK Party has engaged in Islamist activities and should be closed. The party denies the charges. A ruling is expected in early August.

The court case is linked to a power struggle between Turkey’s secularist establishment and the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which are at odds over the direction of the officially secular but predominantly Muslim country.

Tensions have also risen in recent weeks over a widening police investigation into a suspected ultra-nationalist group accused of seeking to overthrow the government.

Two senior retired generals have also been arrested in the probe, which has rattled Turkey.

The Istanbul attacks came hours after Turkish fighter jets bombed suspected Kurdistan Workers Party targets across the border in northern Iraq, used by guerrillas as a base from which to carry out strikes on Turkish territory.