Istanbul — Police have arrested a suspect who is believed to have planted the bomb that exploded on a bustling pedestrian avenue in Istanbul, Turkey’s interior minister said Monday, adding that initial findings indicate that Kurdish militants were responsible for the deadly attack.
Six people were killed and several dozen others were wounded in Sunday’s explosion on Istiklal Avenue, a popular thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants that leads to the iconic Taksim Square.
“A little while ago, the person who left the bomb was detained by our Istanbul Police Department teams,” the Anadolu Agency quoted Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as saying. He did not identify the suspect but said 21 other people were also detained for questioning.
The minister said evidence obtained pointed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and to its Syrian extension, the PYD. He said the attack would be avenged.
“Those who made us go through this pain in Istiklal Avenue will be inflicted much more pain,” Soylu said.
Soylu also blamed the United States, saying a condolence message from the White House was akin to a “killer being first to show up at a crime scene.” Turkey accuses the U.S. of supporting Syrian Kurdish groups.
Soylu said of the 81 people who were hospitalized, 50 were discharged. Five of the wounded were receiving emergency care and two of them were in life-threatening condition, he said.
The PKK has fought an insurgency in Turkey since 1984. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people since then.
Ankara and Washington consider the PKK a terrorist group but they diverge on the issue of the Syrian Kurdish groups, which have fought against the Islamic State group in Syria.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, while visiting the site of the explosion earlier in the day, told reporters that the blast is considered a terrorist act and that a woman was behind the attack, according to state news agency Anadolu. Derya Yanik, the Turkish minister of family and social services, said in a tweet that one of her colleagues and his daughter were two of the people killed in the explosion.
Footage posted online showed ambulances, fire trucks and police at the scene on Istiklal Avenue, a popular thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants that leads to the iconic Taksim Square. In one video, a loud bang could be heard and flames seen as pedestrians turned and ran away.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the blast a “treacherous attack” and said its perpetrators would be punished.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. “strongly condemns the act of violence that took place” in Istanbul.
“Our thoughts are with those who were injured and our deepest condolences go to those who lost loved ones. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO Ally Turkiye in countering terrorism,” Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, also responded to news of the explosion and said the organization “stands in solidarity” with Turkey.
“Shocking images from #Istanbul,” Stoltenberg tweeted. “My thoughts and deepest condolences to all those affected & to the Turkish people. #NATO stands in solidarity with our Ally #Türkiye.”
In addition to the six people killed, Istanbul Gov. Ali Yerlikaya initially tweeted that another 53 were wounded — casualty counts that Erdogan also gave. Yerlikaya later told state news that the number had grown to 81, as did Erdogan and Oktay, Anadolu reported.
Speaking at a news conference held ahead of his departure to Indonesia for the G20 summit, Erdogan said that early observations suggest a woman was involved in the attack, and told reporters that whomever is responsible will be identified, according to Anadolu.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told pro-government broadcaster A Haber that investigators were focusing on a woman who sat on a bench by the scene of the blast for about 40 minutes. The explosion took place just minutes after she left. He said her identity was not yet clear, nor was it clear what group might be behind the attack.
Turkey was hit by a string of deadly bombings between 2015 and 2017 by the Islamic State group and outlawed Kurdish groups. More than 500 civilians and security personnel were killed in the attacks.
Following those attacks, Turkey launched cross-border military operations into Syria and northern Iraq against Kurdish militants, while also cracking down on Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists at home.
While the PKK are considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, critics say Erdogan has also used broad 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 disseminate false information about domestic or international security, public order or health. Critics have said the wording of the article is so vague, it can be used to stamp out dissent.
Police on Sunday said they had identified 25 social media users who shared “provocative content” that could fall afoul of that law.
In another example of the country’s restrictions on the press, Turkey’s media watchdog also imposed temporary limits on reporting on Sunday’s explosion — a move that bans the use of close-up videos and photos of the blast 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 media sites was also restricted.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday noted that the Istanbul attack came exactly seven years after Islamic State extremists killed 130 people at Paris cafes, the Bataclan theater and France’s national stadium.
“On such a symbolic day for our nation, as we are thinking of the victims who fell Nov. 13, 2015, the Turkish people were hit by an attack on their heart, Istanbul,” Macron said. “To the Turks: We share your pain. We stand at your side in the fight against terrorism.”