Turkish officials said three Israelis were among the five people killed in a suicide bombing that rocked a main pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of Istanbul on Saturday. At least 11 Israelis were among the 36 injured in the explosion.
Turkish authorities identified another of the people killed as an Iranian national.
Israeli officials named one fatality as Dimona-native Simha Damri, 60, who was in Istanbul as part of a culinary tour with her husband Avi, who was also injured in the attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that two Israelis had been killed and said it was possible there was a third Israeli fatality.
Speaking to the Israeli press after an emergency meeting, he said officials were investigating if Israelis had been targeted in the bombing, and said intelligence pointed to it being an Islamic State attack.
Six of the Israeli injured are slated to land back in Israel overnight Saturday. The worst-hurt, however, will remain in Istanbul hospitals until they are well enough to be put on a plane.
Turkish Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said that 36 people were wounded in the bombing, seven of them seriously. Two of the Israelis injured in the blast were seriously hurt, and one was undergoing surgery in an Istanbul hospital, Channel 2 reported.
Two Magen David Adom ambulance planes left Israel Saturday evening for Istanbul to retrieve those injured in the attack and bring them back to Israel for treatment. Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold was to fly to Istanbul Sunday as well in coordination with Turkish authorities.
Ten other Israelis known to be in Turkey were out of contact with Israeli authorities.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul were monitoring events. Turkey has remained a popular destination for Israeli tourists, despite a years-long freeze in ties between the two countries.
“This is a suicide attack, a terrorist attack,” Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin told reporters at the scene, saying the bomber was also killed.
It wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the bombing, but Turkish officials pointed the finger at either Kurdish groups or the Islamic State group, both of which have been accused of carrying out attacks in Turkey recently.
The Jewish community in Istanbul reportedly received warnings of potential terror attacks.
The city’s Great Synagogue was forced to evacuate this morning during Sabbath morning prayers after news of the bombing, which took place around 11 a.m., Makor Rishon reporter Zvika Klein says.
“A few days ago the Jewish community was updated that apparently there would be a terror attack and that we should take precautions,” a member of the community tells the NRG website. “There were warnings as such.”
Turkish media identified the suicide bomber as Savaz Yildiz, 33, from the Turkish city of Adana, who was known to Turkish authorities. It wasn’t clear to which organization he belonged, however.
CCTV footage published online by the private Dogan news agency appeared to show the moment of the blast, with a fireball erupting near a handful of passersby and sending them rushing for cover.
One of the wounded Israelis, Naama Peled, spoke to the Hebrew-language media from hospital after the attack, while tour guide David Califa confirmed on social media that he had also been hurt. A spokesman for the Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction said that six Arab Israelis were wounded in the attack.
“To all those dear people who are worried, I am sorry that I cannot answer you,” Califa wrote in Hebrew on Facebook. “Naama and I are lightly wounded and being treated. The rest of the group members are dispersed among four hospitals. Please pray with us for their well being.”
The wounded Israelis were part of a 14-strong group, led by Califa, who had traveled to Turkey on a culinary tour.
A waiter working in a nearby restaurant told AFP he heard “a loud explosion.”
“When I came out, people were running in every direction, but I ran towards the blast site to see what happened,” said the waiter who gave just his first name Mustafa.
He described scenes of “carnage” with “people lying all about.”
Police sealed off the street in the heart of the European side of Istanbul for several hours after the attack.
Deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus was among the first senior officials to react, telling reporters he expected “unqualified support from those who call themselves Turkey’s friends” — apparently referencing recent criticism in Europe of hardline President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned the suicide bombing as “inhumane” and vowed to continue to fight “centers of terrorism.”
“The investigation is ongoing, we’ll understand the incident as soon as possible. This bitter incident shows once more the rightness of our approach,” he said in a statement.
The US embassy in Turkey said on Twitter it was “saddened” and “shocked” by the attack, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called “despicable and cowardly” in a statement.
Not all officials condemned the attack though.
An official from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, Irem Aktas, was reportedly fired after tweeting shortly after the attack: “I wish that the wounded Israeli tourists were dead,” and her account was subsequently removed from social media.
— Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) March 19, 2016
The bomb exploded near a shopping mall, but Sahin, the Istanbul governor, said the intended target was a local authority building in the Beyoglu neighborhood, where Istiklal Caddesi is situated.
The street, which adjoins Taksim Square in the European part of the city, was evacuated after the attack, an AFP journalist at the scene said. Armed police sealed off the area while a police helicopter hovered overhead and a forensic team was at the scene.
Television images showed several ambulances ferrying the injured to hospitals.
Turkey is on edge following two recent suicide bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a Kurdish militant group, an off-shoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Sirens in Taksim, Istanbul, after the bomb blast viahttps://www.instagram.com/p/BDITKk_B_CO/ pic.twitter.com/ec33Q4gflt
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) March 19, 2016
The most recent attack came on March 13, when a suicide car bomb ripped through a busy square in central Ankara, killing 37 people and wounding 125 others.
Turkey had heightened security in Ankara and Istanbul in the run-up to a Kurdish spring festival on March 21.
On Thursday, Germany had closed its embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul, citing “very serious” indications of planned attacks against its missions in Turkey.
The US embassy in Ankara had also warned its citizens in Turkey to avoid public gatherings ahead of Kurdish Nevruz (New Year) celebrations on Sunday and Monday, a rallying point in the past for pro-Kurdish protests.
Embarrassed by accusations of security lapses, Erdogan has lashed out at journalists, activists and intellectuals who criticize his renewed battle with the PKK and the suffering it has brought to parts of southeast Turkey, calling them “accomplices” of terror.
In July, the PKK resumed its three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state following the collapse of a shaky two-year ceasefire.
The conflict has claimed some 40,000 lives.