Istanbul airport blast kills one, damages planes

ISTANBUL (AFP) - A female cleaner was killed and another wounded early Wednesday after an explosion near a plane at Istanbul’s second international airport, with Turkey on high alert for possible attacks.

The authorities said it was too early confirm if the airport had been targeted in an attack, but the transport minister said there had been no security lapses.

Five planes suffered slight damage as a result of fragments from the explosion, the minister said.

Airport cleaner Zehra Yamac, 30, died of head wounds hours after the blast just after 2am (8am Singapore time) on the tarmac at Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side of Turkey’s largest city, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Turkey’s private carrier Pegasus Airlines said in a statement the explosion occurred next to one of its planes while the two cleaners were nearby.

“There were no passengers either on the plane or on the stairway. Sabiha Gokcen airport is continuing its normal operations,” Pegasus said.

The wounded victim, also a cleaner, was hurt in the leg. Yamac was hospitalised but died of her wounds despite the efforts of medical staff, Anatolia said.

Police stepped up security at airport entrances after the blast, searching vehicles while a police helicopter circled overhead, Anatolia said.

Security was also stepped up at Istanbul’s largest airport, Ataturk, on the European side of the city, with police checking vehicles entering the complex, Turkish television said.

Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said five planes were damaged and were now being repaired in the airport’s hanger.

But he declined to give details on the possible cause.

“At this moment it’s too early to give a verdict but I want to emphasise there is no weakness concerning security,” Yildirim told Anatolia.

Neither President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to the incident in speeches on Wednesday.

The airport said on its official Twitter account that “flights from our terminals are continuing according to schedule.”

Sabiha Gokcen airport, named after Turkey’s first female fighter pilot, is the second international airport in Istanbul after much larger Ataturk airport.

Sabiha Gokcen hosts flights both to domestic and numerous international destinations often with budget airlines but also national flag carrier Turkish Airlines.

In 2015, up to November, it hosted over 17 million domestic passengers and almost nine million international passengers, according to company figures.

It is now fully owned by Malaysian Airports Holding which completed the acquisition of the remaining shares in the airport this year.

“We are working very closely with the Turkish government and our counterparts to facilitate the investigation, and we await their official report on it,” Dato’ Azmi Murad, the executive director of Sabiha Gokcen said in a statement.

“The Turkish government has heightened security within the vicinity of the airport, which includes helicopter surveillance,” he added.

According to Azmi, the airport resumed “normal flight operations” around two hours after the blast.

Turkey is on alert after 103 people were killed on Oct 10 when two suicide bombers ripped through a crowd of peace activists in the capital Ankara, the worst attack in its modern history.

That attack was blamed on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, like two other deadly strikes in the country’s Kurdish-dominated southeast earlier in the year.

Turkish authorities have in recent weeks detained several suspected ISIS members with officials saying they were planning attacks in Istanbul.

But Turkey is also waging an all-out assault on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has staged dozens of deadly attacks against members of the security forces in the southeast of the country.

Meanwhile the banned ultra-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) has also staged a string of usually small-scale attacks in Istanbul over the last months.