STANBUL: Three attackers with suicide vests detonated their explosives at the entrance of Istanbul Ataturk Airport, killing at least 36 people and wounding 147, Turkish officials said Tuesday night.
Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, blamed the Islamic State group for the assault, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility. All three bombers were killed.
The attack is likely to raise tensions in Turkey, which is fighting a domestic Kurdish insurgency and striking at Islamic State jihadists in Syria. Militants from both camps have carried out attacks in Turkish cities in recent months, and this is the fifth major bomb attack in Istanbul this year.
Police manning a checkpoint at the airport’s international terminal shot at two of the attackers as they approached, a Turkish official said. A third bomber detonated explosives in the nearby parking lot, the official said.
Footage broadcast by Turkish media showed at least one blast inside the terminal, while other images showed panicked travelers fleeing and debris strewn across the terminal and parking garage.
There was “no security lapse at the airport,” Yildirim said at a press conference at the airport following the attack. He said the terrorists arrived at the airport in a taxi, and that police officers and foreign nationals were among the dead.
“We urge the world, especially Western countries, to take a firm stand against terrorism,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “Despite paying a heavy price, Turkey has the power, determination and capacity to continue the fight against terrorism until the end.”
The attack on the airport “should serve as a turning point in the fight against terrorism around the world, and especially in Western countries,” he said.
Outside the airport, stranded passengers hauled their luggage as they were evacuated from the terminal. Some travelers cried and embraced one another. One woman stood outside with a sign bearing the name of a missing passenger. Ambulances raced in and out of the area, sirens wailing.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport is one of the busiest in the world. But Turkey’s tourism industry has been crippled by the violence. In April, the country suffered its steepest decline in tourism arrivals in 17 years, according to government data. Trading Economics, a global research firm, says tourism accounts for 8 percent of employment in Turkey.
A Turkish security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “our first assessments of the attacks make it look like this was an ISIS attack. The target and modus operandi are similar to what we’ve seen during the Brussels airport attacks.”
Turkey is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, which has lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria but needs Syria’s border with Turkey to funnel weapons and fighters. Turkey also allows U.S. aircraft to use Incirlik Air Base to fly bombing raids on the jihadists in Syria.
The Islamic State has responded to the campaign against it with rocket fire on Turkish border towns. And if the group is indeed behind Tuesday’s attack, “this would represent a significant escalation by the Islamic State toward Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The attack would be likely to draw Turkey further into a conflict with the jihadist group.
“This is a symbolic attack against the heart of Turkey,” he said, adding that the airport is the hub of Turkish Airlines, the country’s official carrier.
Fighting the Islamic State would “now be unavoidable,” Cagaptay said.
On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara had issued a travel advisory for Turkey, warning U.S. citizens of increased threats. President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, briefed the president on the attack, a White House official said. The U.S. Consulate in Istanbul said it was working to determine whether U.S. citizens are among the victims.
“We stand in solidarity with our NATO ally Turkey in combating the threat of terrorism,” said State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner. “Sadly, this murderous attack is only the latest in a series of attacks aimed at killing and maiming innocent civilians.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said in a statement: “Terrorists have struck again in the heart of one of our NATO allies – and all Americans stand united with the people of Turkey against this campaign of hatred and violence.”
Speaking at a campaign rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio, Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, said: “Folks, there’s something going on that’s really, really bad.”
In a statement, he said, “The terrorist threat has never been greater. . . . We must take steps now to protect America from terrorists, and do everything in our power to improve our security to keep America safe.”