Death Toll in Istanbul Bombing Rises to 16

ISTANBUL (AFP)–The death toll in Sunday’s double bombing in Istanbul rose to 16 on Monday, the government said, just hours before Turkey’s top court was to start deliberations on whether to ban the ruling party.

More than 150 have been injured, said Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag, quoted by the Anatolia news agency. The death toll could rise further, as seven people remain seriously injured, said Akdag, who added that the fatalities included children.

The first bomb created a small blast in a rubbish container in the Gungoren neighborhood on the city’s European bank.

A second stronger explosion took place several minutes later a few meters (yards) away while a crowd gathered at the site of the first blast, NTV television network reported.

Images broadcast by NTV showed scenes of panic, with people covered in blood and disoriented as they ran from the area, littered with debris and shattered glass.

Firefighters and emergency workers were dispatched to the scene and police established a security perimeter.

Local television stations initially reported that the blasts were caused by a gas leak.

The city’s governor Muammer Guler downplayed speculation that rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were responsible for the blasts, saying it was too early to say who was to blame.

He said officials would study the images from surveillance cameras near the scene.

"There is no doubt that this was a terrorist attack," Anatolia news agency quoted him as telling journalists at the site of the attack.

"There were two devices (…) Both were in rubbish containers," he said.

"They exploded within 10 to 12 minutes from each other. After the first explosion people gathered and there was a second explosion which killed people."

Guler said that many people were wounded in nearby shops.

Witnesses confirmed that the second blast was more powerful than the first one, leading investigators to suspect that it was meant to kill as many people as possible.

"After the first blast people gathered. There was a real crowd. Five to 10 minutes later there was another one, much stronger than the first one.

"The building I was in was shaking. People were wounded within 40 metres (yards)," Alaattin Hatayoglu, who heads an association, told Anatolia.

In the past, numerous attacks in Istanbul have been blamed on the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey and Western powers, which has been fighting since 1984 for independence for the Kurdish-majority southeast region. More than 37,000 people have died in the conflict.

Islamist and leftist groups have also struck in Turkey’s biggest city.

The attack came amid high tensions after an Istanbul court decided on Friday to put 86 people on trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow the country’s Islamist-rooted government.

The trial is to open on October 20.

Prosecutors have lodged a 2,455-page indictment against a shadowy ultra-nationalist network, Ergenekon, which allegedly instigated violence and planned assassinations to foment political turmoil and prompt a military coup against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The probe, launched in June 2007 after the discovery of hand grenades in an Istanbul house, has fueled tensions between Erdogan’s supporters and secularists who accuse the government of using the investigation to intimidate opponents.

Turkey’s top court also begins deliberations Monday on whether to ban Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won a decisive victory in legislative elections just one year ago.

The party, which has its roots in a banned Islamist party, stands accused of violating the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution.

The AKP rejects the charges as politically motivated and argues that it is facing a "judicial coup" to oust it from office.

Observers say outlawing the party could plunge Turkey into political chaos, impact membership talks with the European Union and hit the economy at a time of global financial jitters and rising energy prices.

The Constitutional Court has said that it will convene on a daily basis until the 11 judges reach a verdict.

Apart from a ban on the party, the prosecutor has also called for the court to bar President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan and 69 AKP officials from party politics for five years.

The same tribunal delivered a major blow to the AKP last month when it scrapped a government-sponsored constitutional amendment lifting a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities.

The amendment, which the court said violated the principle of secularism, was among the chief examples cited by the prosecutor as evidence of the AKP’s alleged opposition to the separation of state and religion.

If the court does ban the AKP, then its deputies are expected to regroup under a different name and call snap elections before the end of the year, most likely in autumn, analysts say.

If the court bans Erdogan from party politics, he could return to parliament by running as an independent.

Recent polls indicate the AKP is still Turkey’s most popular party and would garner more than 40 percent of the vote if there were an election today.

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