Bomb rocks Avenue in the heart of Istanbul; 6 dead, dozens injured

A bomb rocked a lively pedestrian avenue in the heart of Istanbul this Sunday, killing six, injuring several dozen and scaring people who had fled the fire explosion or huddled in cafes and shops.

Emergency vehicles rushed to the scene on Istiklal Avenue, a popular thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants that leads to the iconic Taksim Square. In a video posted online, a loud bang was heard and a flash was seen as the pedestrians saw and fled.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the explosion a “treacherous attack” and said its perpetrators would be punished. He did not say who was behind the attack but said it “reeks of terror” without giving details and added that he was not yet sure.

Sunday’s blast was a shocking reminder of the anxiety and security concerns that dogged the Turkish population during the years when such attacks were common. The country was hit by a series of deadly attacks between 2015 and 2017, some by the Islamic State group, others by Kurdish militants seeking greater autonomy or independence.

In recent years, Erdogan has led a broad crackdown on militants as well as Kurdish lawmakers and activists. Amid soaring inflation and other economic problems, Erdogan’s anti-terror campaign is a key rallying point for him ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Erdogan, who left for the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia on Sunday, said six people were killed. Vice President Fuat Oktay put the number of injured at 81, with two in serious condition, and also said it appeared to be a terrorist attack.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told the pro-government A Haber channel that investigators were focusing on a woman who sat on a bench next to the blast site for about 40 minutes. The blast happened minutes after she left. He said their identity was not yet clear, nor was it clear which group might be behind the attack.

A manager of a restaurant near where the bomb went off said he heard the explosion and saw people running. The dozens of customers in his restaurant, including women and children, panicked and screamed.

The manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said he closed the shutters of his restaurant, fearing another explosion, and tried to calm customers. After about 15 to 25 minutes inside, he saw the police on the avenue and organized the customers and their staff to leave in small groups.

Numerous foreign governments have offered their condolences, including neighboring Greece, with which relations are strained. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he was “shocked and saddened by the news of the heinous attack”.

Following attacks between 2015 and 2017 that left more than 500 civilians and security personnel dead, Turkey launched cross-border military operations in Syria and northern Iraq against Kurdish militants, while cracking down on Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists in the country.

Although Kurdish militants, known as the PKK, are considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, critics say Erdogan has also used sweeping terror laws to stifle free speech.

Most recently, Turkey enacted a controversial “disinformation law” that carries a prison sentence of up to three years for social media users who spread false information about domestic or international security, public order or health. Critics have said the article’s wording is so vague it can be used to stamp out dissent.

Police said on Sunday they had identified 25 social media users who shared “provocative content” that could breach that law.

In another example of the country’s restrictions on the press, Turkey’s media watchdog also imposed time limits on reporting on Sunday’s blast, a move banning the use of close-up photos and videos of the explosion and its aftermath. The Supreme Council of Radio and Television has imposed similar bans in the past, following attacks and accidents.

Access to Twitter and other social networks was also restricted.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, pointed out this Sunday that the attack in Istanbul occurred exactly seven years after the extremists of the Islamic State killed 130 people in Paris cafes, the Bataclan theater and the national stadium of France.

“On such a symbolic day for our nation, as we are thinking of the victims who fell in November. On the 13th of 2015, the Turkish people suffered an attack on their heart, Istanbul,” Macron said. “To the Turks: We share your pain. We stand by your side in the fight against terrorism.”

Associated Press reporters Cavit Ozgul and Khalil Hamra contributed to this report.

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