ISTANBUL (REUTERS, AFP) - Three suicide bombers opened fire then blew themselves up in Istanbul’s main international airport on Tuesday (June 28), killing 41 people and wounding 239 in what Turkey’s prime minister said appeared to have been an attack by Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
The city governor’s office said 109 out of the wounded were discharged from hospital. Thirteen of the dead were foreign nationals, it added.
One attacker opened fire in the departures hall with an automatic rifle, sending passengers diving for cover and trying to flee, before all three blew themselves up in or around the arrivals hall a floor below, witnesses and officials said.
The attack on Europe’s third-busiest airport is one of the deadliest in a series of suicide bombings in Turkey, which is struggling to contain the spillover from neighbouring Syria’s civil war and battling an insurgency by Kurdish militants in its south-east.
Police fired shots to try to stop two of the attackers just before they reached a security checkpoint at the arrivals hall, but they detonated their explosives, a Turkish official said.
“It became clear with this incident again that terrorism is a global threat. This attack, targeting innocent people is a vile, planned terrorist act,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters at the airport. “There is initial evidence that each of the three suicide bombers blew themselves up after opening fire,” he said, adding that preliminary findings pointed to ISIS responsibility.
The vast majority of those killed were Turkish nationals but foreigners were also among the dead, including one Ukrainian and one Iranian, officials from the two countries said. Saudi media reported that among those hurt were seven Saudis, who were in good condition.
The prime minister added that the attackers had arrived at the airport by taxi. He ruled out any security failings at Ataturk, one of Europe’s busiest air hubs, where all flights had been suspended after the attack.
Air traffic would resume at the airport from 3am local time (8am Singapore time), Yildirim said.
Security camera footage widely circulated on social media appeared to capture two of the blasts. In one clip a huge ball of flame erupts at an entrance to the terminal building, scattering terrified passengers.
Another video shows a black-clad attacker running inside the building before collapsing to the ground – apparently felled by a police bullet – and blowing himself up.
Witnesses described scenes of panic as the blasts hit, while images on social media showed passengers lying on the floor and luggage trolleys overturned.
“There was a huge explosion, extremely loud. The roof came down. Inside the airport it is terrible, you can’t recognise it, the damage is big,” said Ali Tekin, who was at the arrivals hall waiting for a guest when the attack took place.
A German woman named Duygu, who was at passport control entering Turkey, said she threw herself onto the floor with the sound of the explosion. Several witnesses also reported hearing gunfire shortly before the attacks.
“Everyone started running away. Everywhere was covered with blood and body parts. I saw bullet holes on the doors,” she said outside the airport.
A helicopter buzzed overhead as police evacuated the building. Dozens of passengers walked back down access roads with their luggage, trying to hail cabs. The US embassy urged US citizens to avoid the area.
A witness told Reuters that security officials prevented his taxi and other cars from entering the airport at around 9.50pm (2.50am Wednesday Singapore time). Drivers leaving the terminal shouted “Don’t enter! A bomb exploded!” from their windows to incoming traffic, he said.
Television footage showed ambulances rushing to the scene. One witness told CNN Turk that gunfire was heard from the carpark at the airport. Taxis were ferrying wounded people from the airport, the witness said.
Officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the use of suicide bombers against “soft” targets was more typical of ISIS than the other obvious suspect, Kurdish PKK militants, who generally attack official government targets.
One of the officials also said that, while ISIS had recently stepped up attacks in Turkey, the group rarely claims responsibility because Turkey remains one of the main corridors for its fighters travelling from Europe to Syria and Iraq.
No group has claimed responsibility more than nine hours after the attack.
The attack bore similarities to a suicide bombing by Islamic State militants at Brussels airport in March that killed 16 people. A coordinated attack also targeted a rush-hour metro train, killing a further 16 people in the Belgian capital.
US CONDEMNS ATTACKS
The head of Red Crescent, Kerem Kinik, said on CNN Turk that people should go to blood donation centres and not hospitals to give blood and called on people to avoid main roads to the airport to avoid blocking path of emergency vehicles.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday (June 29) called for a “joint fight” against terror after the triple suicide attack.
“If states, as all humanity, fail to join forces and wage a joint fight against terrorist organisations, all the possibilities that we dread in our minds will come true one by one,” Erdogan said in a statement.
The US condemned what it called the “heinous” attacks, pledging “steadfast” support for Turkey.
“Ataturk International Airport, like Brussels Airport which was attacked earlier this year, is a symbol of international connections and the ties that bind us together,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
“We remain steadfast in our support for Turkey, our Nato ally and partner, along with all of our friends and allies around the world, as we continue to confront the threat of terrorism.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the attack was “only the latest in a series of attacks aimed at killing and maiming innocent civilians”.
“Such attacks will only reinforce our determination to work with the government of Turkey to counter the scourge of terrorism and support all those across the region who are working to promote peace and reconciliation,” he said in a statement.
The US Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights between the US and Istanbul, but lifted the ban hours later. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reacted to the explosions by putting armed, high-visibility patrols at the three main airports in the New York metropolitan region.
Turkey has suffered a spate of bombings this year, including two suicide attacks in tourist areas of Istanbul blamed on Islamic State, and two car bombings in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a Kurdish militant group.
In the most recent attack, a car bomb ripped through a police bus in central Istanbul during the morning rush hour, killing 11 people and wounding 36 near the main tourist district, a major university and the mayor’s office.
Turkey, which is part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State, is also fighting Kurdish militants in its largely Kurdish south-east.
One person was killed on Dec 23, 2015, when an explosion hit Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, located on the Asian side of the city. That attack was claimed by a Kurdish militant group.