Turkey vows to ‘cleanse’ border of IS after deadly attack

People carry a victim's coffin as they attend funeral services for dozens of people killed in last night's bomb attack targeting an outdoor wedding party in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. (AP)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey vowed Monday to fight Islamic State militants at home and to “cleanse” the group from its borders after a weekend suicide bombing at a Kurdish wedding, an attack that came amid recent gains by Syrian Kurdish militia forces against the extremists in neighboring Syria.

The bombing Saturday in the southern city of Gaziantep, near the border with Syria, killed at least 54 people — many of them children. Nearly 70 others were wounded in the attack, the deadliest in Turkey this year.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but officials said it appeared to be the work of the Islamic State group. Authorities were trying to identify the attacker, who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially said was a child. However, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Monday that it was unclear whether the bomber was “a child or a grown-up.”

“A clue has not yet been found concerning the perpetrator,” Yildirim told reporters following a weekly Cabinet meeting. He said the earlier assertion that the attacker was child was a “guess” based on witness accounts.

At least 22 of those killed were children younger than 14, according to a Turkish official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Turkish government rules.

The attack came after the Syria Democratic Forces, a coalition led by the main Kurdish militia groups in Syria, captured the former IS stronghold of Manbij in northern Syria under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

“It appears to be an act to punish the PYD,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan a security and terrorism expert at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, 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.”

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters Monday that Turkey would press ahead with its fight against the Islamic State group inside Turkey and support efforts to remove IS fighters from its borders.

“Our border has to be completely cleansed of Daesh,” Cavusoglu said, using an Arabic acronym for the extremists. IS “martyred our … citizens. It is natural for us to struggle against such an organization both inside and outside of Turkey.”

Cavusoglu said Turkey had become a main IS target 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.

“Turkey has always been Daesh’s primary target, because Turkey has dried out the source of Daesh’s supply of foreign fighters. … 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 was still reeling from the aftermath of last month’s failed coup attempt, which the government has blamed on a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, and his followers.

The bombing follows a suspected IS attack in June on Istanbul’s main airport that killed 44 people; a double suicide bombing blamed on IS at a peace rally in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in October killed 103 people.

Ozcan, the security expert, said Saturday’s attack was likely carried out by a local IS cell whose members would have known the wedding was a Kurdish one and targeted the wedding party for the “shock” value.

The bride and groom, who survived the bombing, urged authorities to act to prevent future bloodshed.

“They turned our best day to hell. We have no relatives left. They all died,” said the groom, Nurettin Akdogan. “I hope this will be the last one. Let no one else get hurt.”

“From now on, find a solution,” added the bride, Besna Akdogan, sobbing.

One of the wedding guests, Nursel Saglam, was on a rooftop overlooking the outdoor celebrations when the bomb went off. When she looked down after the explosion, everyone below was hurt or dead, she said.

“I can’t forget that moment,” she said, adding that she hasn’t been able to return to her house near the scene of the attack and was staying with her sister.

Halil Ilter said he was at home when he heard the blast and rushed to the scene to check on his relatives.

“I cannot recount what I saw,” said Ilter, who lost five young cousins. “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.