ISTANBUL – Interior Minister Efkan Ala on Sunday identified the suicide bomber who killed himself and four foreign tourists in Istanbul as a militant with links to the Islamic State group.
Ala said the bomber was Turkish citizen Mehmet Ozturk, who was born in 1992 in Gaziantep province, which borders Syria. He said Ozturk was not on any list of wanted suspects and five other people were detained as part of the investigation.
Saturday’s explosion killed five people, including Ozturk, and wounded dozens of others. Among the fatalities were two American-Israelis, another Israeli and an Iranian. The attack targeted Istanbul’s pedestrian Istiklal Street, which is lined with shops and cafes in an area that also has government offices and foreign missions.
“The identity of the terrorist who carried out this reprehensible attack has been determined. … The findings obtained show that the terrorist is linked to the Daesh terror organization,” the minister said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
Turkey has endured six suicide bomb attacks in less than a year.
The country faces a wide array of security threats including from ultraleft radicals, Kurdish rebels demanding greater autonomy who currently are locked in battle with security forces in the southeast, as well as the Islamic State group.
Turkey is also a partner in the U.S. led coalition against IS and its air bases are being used to launch bombing runs against the group in neighboring Syria.
Two of the attacks this year hit the Turkish capital, Ankara. An offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Union claimed the Feb. 17 car bombing that killed 29 people and the March 13 suicide bombing that killed 37. On Jan. 12, an attack that Turkish authorities blamed on IS claimed the lives of a dozen German tourists visiting Istanbul’s historic sites.
That attack delivered a bitter blow to the country’s vital tourism sector.
Ala said Turkey is determined to press ahead with its fight against terrorist groups but admitted it is difficult to prevent suicide attacks.
“We are working so that they do not happen,” the minister said.
On Sunday, well-wishers placed carnations and candles at the scene of the attack, with one placard reading “We are on the streets, we are not afraid of you.”
Earlier, Israeli authorities raised the number of Israelis killed in the bombing to three, among them two who also hold American citizenship.
It was not immediately clear if the Israelis were specifically targeted. The Israelis’ bodies and other Israelis wounded in the blast were being evacuated while a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official was to arrive in Istanbul for meetings with Turkish officials.
The attack came has Turkey had heightened security across the country in the run-up to the Kurdish spring festival of Newroz on Monday, which Kurds in Turkey traditionally use to assert their ethnic identity and demand greater rights.
Ala said 120,000 police and 80,000 military police will be on duty during the Newroz period and more than 1,000 police checkpoints have been set up.
Pope Francis, meanwhile, sent condolences to Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan over the attack. The Vatican said Sunday the message noted that Francis was grieving for the casualties and “expresses his prayerful solidarity with all touched by this tragedy.”