Bombs exploded simultaneously at two small hotels Tuesday, killing two people and wounding 11. Kurdish separatists claimed responsibility for the attack, and Turkish authorities dismissed another claim by an al-Qaida-linked group.
One of the hotels was only a few miles from where the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team is staying during the final stop of its pre-Olympic tour. The team decided to proceed with an exhibition game Tuesday night against Turkey’s national team, U.S. team spokesman Brian McIntyre said.
Two more explosions caused damage but no casualties at a liquefied petroleum gas plant on the outskirts of Istanbul, and Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said police were investigating to determine whether they were linked to the hotel blasts.
A previously unknown Kurdish group said it carried out the attack. The Germany-based Mezopotamya News Agency, which often reports rebel statements, said it received a telephone call from an individual claiming responsibility for the attacks in the name of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons Organization.
It said the group carried out the attacks because of recent Turkish military operations against the rebels. No other details were immediately available.
Aksu said Kurdish rebels could be responsible for the hotel attacks, but added that police were also investigating other possibilities. Islamic and leftist extremists have staged attacks previously in Turkey.
The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, named for an al-Qaida commander killed in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility earlier, saying the attacks were the first of a “wave of operations” in European countries and that worse was to come.
“Istanbul is the opening for the bloody war we promised the Europeans,” the statement said. The group is named for an al-Qaida commander killed in Afghanistan.
It was not possible to check the authenticity of the al-Qaida claim. Western experts have questioned the credibility of the group, noting it has previously claimed to be behind events for which it clearly didn’t play a role, such as power failures in North America and Britain.
A senior Turkish police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Turkish authorities had no information to suggest any links to al-Qaida and said police suspected involvement by Kurdish rebels.
Another police official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that explosives used in Tuesday’s attacks were similar to those used in a July car bombing in eastern Van province that killed three people and wounded two dozen others. The attack was blamed on Kurdish militants, who denied involvement.
The explosions came only hours after the arrest of four Kurdish militants in the city, officials noted. Private NTV television said the militants were preparing large-scale attacks in Istanbul.
Kurdish rebels, who are battling Turkish troops in the southeast for autonomy, have intensified attacks lately. The rebel group, known as KONGRA-GEL but formerly called the PKK, threatened to target Turkey’s tourism industry when it ended a unilateral cease-fire June 1, saying the government had not responded in kind.
Aksu said the captured Kurdish militants were responsible for a series of attacks in the southeast, including an assassination attempt on the governor of Tunceli province last year.
“Explosive devices and guns were seized along with these four people. Every link is being investigated. It could be the same group,” Aksu said.
Turk, Iranian killed
The dead were identified as a Turk and an Iranian, and authorities said all but two of the injured were tourists — four Spaniards, two Dutch, a Ukrainian and two Chinese. Nine of the wounded had been treated and released from the hospital, Aksu said.
Workers at the Pars hotel in the Laleli district, where inexpensive hotels and clothing stores cater to eastern European tourists, said they received an anonymous call warning of a bomb in a room only 10 minutes before the explosion there, the Anatolia news agency reported. That blast caused the two deaths and some injuries, officials said.
The other bombing was at the Star Holiday Hotel, just a few hundred yards from the Byzantine former church Saint Sophia and the Sultanahmet, also known as the Blue Mosque.
“There was a huge explosion and the glass started shattering,” said Umut Akgul, who was visiting a friend who works at the Star Holiday.
The explosion ripped off the exterior walls of the top two floors of the three-floor hotel, which officials said housed 20 guests.
Security concerns in Turkey have been high since last November, when four suicide truck bombings blamed on al-Qaida killed more than 60 people in Istanbul.
In 1996, an underground Islamic group, Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a hotel in Laleli that killed 17 Ukrainian tourists.