(CNSNews.com) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan headed Sunday to a G20 summit shortly after saying that an explosion in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more “smells like terrorism.”
Investigations into the mid-afternoon blast in a busy pedestrian thoroughfare did not immediately produce evidence of a bomb, although Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said suspicions were focused on a woman who had sat on a bench near the blast scene for about 40 minutes, and had then left minutes before the blast occurred.
The Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office appointed five prosecutors to investigate the blast, but government officials did not hesitate to label the incident a terror attack.
“Relevant units of our state continue to work to reveal the perpetrators of this treacherous attack and the gatherings behind it,” tweeted Erdogan. “Let our nation be sure that the perpetrators of this attack will be exposed with all its elements and punished as they deserve.”
“No attack will be able to break Turkey’s determination and resistance,” said Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
The government also imposed a news blackout on broadcasters and social media under Turkey’s strict security laws.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu later charged that Kurdish groups were behind the blast, pointing to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syria-based affiliate the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD).
Erdogan, who is running for re-election next year, has made the fight against terrorism a key element of his campaign. He is also holding off on ratifying Sweden and Finland’s applications to join NATO based on his assertion that they are not acting sufficiently firmly against anti-Turkish “terrorists.”
In his crosshairs are two groups in particular: the PKK, and what Turkey calls the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO) – its pejorative label for the social and educational movement led by the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
The PKK has waged a separatist armed struggle in south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades, a campaign that has cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides. The PKK is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, although the PYD, whose YPG armed wing allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS in Syria, is not.
Ankara’s focus on “FETO” is relatively more recent. Gulen was a former ally of Erdogan who went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. two decades ago and has been the subject of unsuccessful extradition requests by the Turks since 2013.
Accusing Gulen of masterminding an abortive coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan ordered a massive crackdown on real and supposed sympathizers, arresting tens of thousands and purging of 150,000 judges, soldiers, teachers, and civil servants.
Gulen, now 81, has denied Erdogan’s conspiracy charges, and the U.S. Justice Department has not found evidence to justify extraditing him.
Erdogan on Sunday did not point fingers at particular suspects in connection with the explosion in Istanbul.
But in response to a reporter’s question, he said that if he has the opportunity to meet with President Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali this week, he would raise again his longstanding demand that the U.S. extradite Gulen.
Biden does not currently have a meeting with Erdogan scheduled in Bali, although National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Sunday left open the possibility that more bilateral meetings on the summit fringes may be arranged.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who is traveling with the president’s entourage, said in a brief statement the U.S. “strongly condemns the act of violence” in Istanbul, and stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Turkey “in countering terrorism.”
A spate of terrorist attacks in Turkey in 2015-2017 were blamed either on the PKK (or a PKK offshoot) or on ISIS. Some of the deadliest, including a January 2017 mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub and a July 2015 suicide bombing in the country’s southeast, were carried out by ISIS, and believed to be linked to Turkey’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war.