ISTANBUL – A suspected Islamic State suicide bomber blew himself up during an anti-terror raid in the Turkish city of Gaziantep on Sunday, killing three police officers, officials said.
A few hours later, a second suicide bomber — identified as the chief of IS group “bomb cells” in the city near the Syrian border — detonated his explosives, killing himself but without causing any further fatalities.
The blasts took place shortly after Turkish-backed rebels captured the northern Syrian town of Dabiq from the IS group, dealing a major symbolic blow to the jihadis.
In the first attack in Gaziantep, the bomber set off his explosives to avoid being captured by Turkish police, local governor Ali Yerlikaya said in televised comments.
Turkish media had initially spoken of more than one attacker but the governor and the local prosecutor’s office said the body of just one bomber was found at the scene.
The governor said five police and four Syrians were also injured.
Acting on a tip, special police used armored vehicles to block the road where the suspected jihadis were holed up in a house, the state-run news agency Anadolu reported.
Witnesses told private NTV television they heard sound of gunfire and clashes in the area, which is mostly populated by university students.
Video footage released by the private Dogan news agency showed several suspects with their hands tied behind their backs as they were taken to a police car.
Yerlikaya said the raid took place after Turkish authorities gathered intelligence about a possible suicide bomb attack by a suspected IS sleeper cell in Gaziantep against an Alevi cultural association.
Police confiscated computers and hard disks from the house.
A second suicide bomber blew himself up as police hunted for suspects who fled after the first blast, Yelikaya said.
He was identified as Mehmet Kadir Cabael, chief of the IS group’s “bomb cells” in the Gaziantep region and who was believed to be supplying logistical support to the organization, according to the governor.
He said the second bombing caused no further casualties, adding that the suspect’s wife and children who were in the apartment building at the time did not suffer any injuries.
Turkish police have detained 19 suspects for alleged links to IS group, the governor said.
Gaziantep, a major city lying just 60 km (37 miles) north of the Syrian border, has become a hub for Syrians fleeing the civil war.
Since the summer of 2015, Turkey has suffered a string of attacks in Gaziantep and elsewhere blamed on IS jihadis and Kurdish militants.
In August, a suicide bombing at a Kurdish wedding in the city killed 57 people, 34 of them children. The attack was blamed on IS jihadis.
In September, the United States warned of the risk of a terror attack in Gaziantep on businesses frequented by Westerners, including the popular coffee chain Starbucks.
At the time, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara warned its citizens that Turkish police were investigating a possible “terror cell” in Gaziantep.
Turkish authorities acknowledge that IS jihadis have built up a presence in the southeastern city with the aim of staging attacks, and Sunday’s raid was part of a wider crackdown on sleeper cells across the country.
Yerlikaya said Turkey “will continue its fight against all terror groups including Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on Aug. 24, backing up opposition fighters, with the ultimate goal of cleansing its border of IS jihadis and stopping the advance of Syrian Kurdish militia forces, which Ankara vehemently opposes.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also voiced Turkey’s willingness to become involved in a coalition operation to recapture the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from IS.
Turkey is still reeling from an attempted July 15 coup blamed on U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen that has been followed by a relentless purge of his supporters from all state institutions.
Kurdish militants have also staged a number of attacks.
Adherents of the Alevi branch of Islam are known for their hard-line opposition to the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) co-founded by Erdogan.