ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday that his country is determined to fight Islamic State group extremists both inside Turkey and in Syria, after a youth blew himself up at a Kurdish wedding party, killing at least 54 people, many of them children.
Cavusoglu said Turkey would provide every kind of support that may be necessary to “cleanse” Turkey’s border with Syria of the extremists.
The death toll from Saturday’s attack increased to 54 on Monday, after three more victims died in hospital, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Nearly 70 others were wounded.
An official said at least 22 victims of attack in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, near the border with Syria, were children under the age of 14. The official couldn’t be named in line with Turkish government rules.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but officials have said it appears to be the work of the Islamic State group, accusing it of trying to destabilize the country by exploiting ethnic and religious tensions. It was the deadliest attack in Turkey this year.
Authorities were trying to identify the attacker, who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said was aged between 12 and 14.
Responding to a question on reports that Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces may launch an operation to free an IS-held town from Turkish territory, Cavusoglu said: “Our border has to be completely cleansed of Daesh. It’s natural for us to give whatever kind of support is necessary,” He was using an Arabic name for the IS group.
“(IS) martyred our ... citizens. It is natural for us to struggle against such an organization both inside and outside of Turkey,” he said.
Cavusoglu said Turkey had become a main target for the IS group because of measures it has implemented to stop recruits from crossing into Syria to join the fighting, as well as hundreds of arrests of IS suspects in Turkey. He said Turkey had also become a top target because of statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has said the extremist group did “not represent Islam.”
“Turkey has always been Daesh’ primary target, because Turkey has dried out the source of Daesh’s supply of foreign fighters, rather, it has stopped them from crossing into Syria,” he said.
The deadly attack also came amid ongoing struggles between the government and Kurdish militants linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, and as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of last month’s failed coup attempt, which the government has blamed on U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers.
The suicide bombing follows a June attack on Istanbul’s main airport where IS suspects killed 44 people. A dual suicide bombing blamed on IS at a peace rally in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in October killed 103 people.
The pro-Kurdish political party HDP condemned the attack on the wedding, which it said was attended by many of its party members.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security and terrorism expert at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said the attack on the Kurdish wedding appeared to be retaliation by IS for recent Syrian Kurdish militia gains against the extremist group in Syria along the Turkish border.
“It appears to be an act to punish the PYD,” Ozcan said, referring to a Syrian Kurdish group whose militia is fighting IS. “It’s the cross-border settlement of scores by two actors fighting in Syria.”
Ozcan said the group had chosen a wedding party and sent a child to carry out the attack to increase the “shock” effect of the attack. He said the attack was most likely carried out by a local IS cell, who would have knowledge that the wedding was a Kurdish one.
More funerals were scheduled in Gaziantep for at least three of the victims on Monday.
Halil Ilter said he was at home when he heard the sound of the explosion and rushed to the scene to check on his relatives. He lost five of his young cousins in the attack.
“I cannot recount what I saw,” he told Anadolu Agency. “I am not myself since. There is nothing to say, it was murder.”
“My uncle’s children died. They were aged 13, 14. One was only 5,” he said.