GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Twenty-two of the 54 victims of a devastating bomb attack that struck a Kurdish wedding celebration in southern Turkey were children, a Turkish official said Monday.
The revelation added a fresh layer of horror to Saturday night’s bombing in Gaziantep that killed 54 and wounded dozens of others — the deadliest in a string of blasts across Turkey this year.
The bomb struck in crowded streets of the Beybahce neighborhood of Gaziantep’s Sahinbey district during celebrations for the wedding of a Kurdish couple. The blast disproportionately killed women and children, as it had been timed to detonate during a part of the festivities when those groups painted themselves with henna, authorities said.
As the dead were swiftly laid to rest, in accordance with Islamic tradition, their loved ones spoke of their anguish.
Emine Ayhan, who lost four of her five children and whose husband was seriously injured, told Turkish television: “If my remaining child was not alive, I would commit suicide.”
Hakki Okur, 14, was among the young victims. His cousin, Mesut Bozkurt, recounted searching for the teen throughout the night following the blast before his family was summoned to the hospital to identify his body.
“No injuries on his head, but burns on his chest,” Bozkurt said.
“We think he may have been trapped in the panic since he was a skinny boy.”
Erdogan: Bomber also a young teen
The latest bombing stunned Turks — not just for the high death toll but also because Turkish officials say the bomber was between 12 and 14 years old.
On Monday, the prime minister backtracked on that statement, saying they are still trying to determine who carried out the attack.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says ISIS, which has used children in combat or to act as human bombs in attacks across the Middle East, is suspected in the attack.
Authorities found remnants of an explosive vest at the scene, and officials said they are not clear whether it was detonated remotely or by the bomber.
No group has claimed responsibility for the blast. ISIS, which has struck before in Gaziantep and reportedly has a strong presence in the city, traditionally hasn’t claimed responsibility for attacks on Turkish soil.
Gaziantep is about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.
Child bomber thwarted in Iraq
On Sunday, a would-be child bomber was captured by security guards in Kirkuk — a city in northern Iraq with a large Kurdish population. Broadcaster Kurdistan 24 aired footage of guards apprehending the teen and stripping him of his suicide vest before he could strike.
Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk Governorate, told CNN that the thwarted bomber was a 15-year-old who arrived from Mosul — the largest city under ISIS control — a week earlier. Following an earlier suicide attack in the city Sunday, the guards noticed something odd about the teen and stopped him before he struck his target, a Shia mosque.
“He is trained and brainwashed,” Karim told CNN.
“They tell them if they do this, they will go to heaven and have a good time and get everything that they ever wanted.”
Mia Bloom, a Georgia State University professor who is an expert on child soldiers and terrorism, said ISIS made wide use of children in conflict, typically employing them as bombers or snipers, either attached to adult fighting units or operating on their own.
The organization has eulogized more than 250 child attackers on its channels on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app the terror group widely uses.
ISIS has lured children “through a variety of tricks and treats, the way pedophiles lure in young kids,” she said.
But often — if child soldiers are internally displaced persons, as the thwarted Kirkuk bomber was reported to be, or otherwise vulnerable — they may feel “that they had no choice but to join … perhaps in exchange for food or protection or not upsetting the authorities in Raqqa or in Mosul.”
Child bombers who are coerced often deliberately fail to launch their attacks, as the teen in Kirkuk may have done, she said.
Pro-Kurdish party struck
Turkish news agency DHA broadcast footage showing the bride and groom overcome by emotion as they returned to the blast site at an apartment building that was home to the groom’s parents and where the newlyweds were to live after their wedding.
Distraught to revisit the scene of so much bloodshed, the couple were rushed back to the hospital for treatment, with the overwhelmed bride carried into the ward by her husband and a relative.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party said in a statement condemning the blast that the wedding was for one of its members.
It added that the bombing, which it said had killed many children and women, resembled other suspected ISIS attacks on the party in Turkey, such as in Suruc in July 2015 and in Ankara in October.
The latter attack, targeting a peace rally near the capital’s central railway station, claimed more than 100 lives, making it the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.
“Over the years, Gaziantep has gradually become a nest for ISIS,” said the statement from the party’s Central Executive Board.
“The people of Gaziantep have been living in an environment with ISIS members who amass weapons and organize mass meetings.”
The statement criticized Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party for failing to prevent such attacks and said its “hate speech, discriminating and dividing attitude in democratic political arenas furnishes the conditions” for such acts.
Relations between the government and Turkey’s Kurdish minority have been strained as a result of a decades-long Kurdish insurgency.
Kurds targeted by ISIS
The Kurds have become key American allies in the battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, placing Kurdish targets squarely in the Sunni terror group’s cross hairs.
Kurdish militia played a central role in driving the group from the Syrian city of Manbij this month, cutting a main supply route from the Turkish border to its heartland in Raqqa.
ISIS operatives have struck before in the bustling southern Turkish city of about 1.5 million people, with the group claiming responsibility for the shootings of anti-ISIS activists there in December and April.
The terror group has been blamed for a series of bomb attacks throughout Turkey, which allows planes from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition to operate from its air base at Incirlik.
In June, 44 people were killed by suspected ISIS suicide bombers at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
ISIS is believed to have extensive cells throughout Turkey. Citing Turkish security sources, Anadolu reported last month that 5,300 suspected ISIS members had been detained in Turkey.
Even before the attempted July 15 coup, Turkey had experienced a year of bloodshed and political turmoil, weathering a string of deadly bomb blasts, blamed variously on ISIS and the PKK.
In attacks last week, 11 people were killed and hundreds injured in three bombings targeting security forces in eastern Turkey. The Turkish government blamed the PKK, which has typically targeted police and the military, whereas ISIS tends to launch mass casualty attacks on soft, civilian targets.
Clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces have flared up again since a peace process crumbled in 2015, bringing an end to a two-year ceasefire.