ISTANBUL // A suicide bomber thought to be from a leftist militant group blew himself up in front of a police station in a working-class neighbourhood of Istanbul yesterday, killing a policeman and wounding seven other people.
Huseyin Capkin, the police chief of Istanbul, said the attacker "threw a grenade" and was then "torn apart" by an explosion from a second device at the entrance to the police station in the Sultangazi neighbourhood on Istanbul's European side.
"I looked and a cloud of dust was rising from the front of the police building," said Zafer Aldogan, 55, whose son runs a glazier's shop about a hundred metres from the site of the explosion. "Body parts from the suicide bomber landed right in front of the shop. The police came and picked them up."
The Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), which has been blamed for at least one other suicide attack in Turkey's largest city, said that one of its members had carried out the attack. He was identified in media reports as Corum Alaca, 25.
It was not immediately possible to verify the statement, which was published on a website linked to the group, but a high-ranking security officer said the security services believed the DHKP/C to be responsible.
Founded in 1978, the group wants to set up a socialist state in Turkey and is vehemently opposed to the existing establishment and the United States, according to the US National Counterterrorism Centre. The DHKP/C was blamed for a suicide attack in 2001 that killed two police officers and a tourist in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
The main domestic security threat in Turkey usually comes from the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), deemed a terrorist group by the US, the European Union and Turkey, but it has focused its campaign mostly on targets in the mainly Kurdish south-east.
Some residents of Sultangazi, a neighbourhood that is home to many Kurds and members of the Alevi minority, said the attack came amid constant tensions between locals and the police in the area. Eighteen people were killed during several days of unrest in the neighbourhood in 1995, triggered by a deadly attack on Alevis, members of a Muslim sect with ties to Shiite Islam.
"I have been living here for 20 years and there hasn't been a time without tensions since then," said one man. "Police patrol the streets in armoured vehicles only, not in normal cars."
Eyewitnesses in Sultangazi said they heard the explosion at the three-storey police station about 11am. By midday, police had cordoned off the area while crime-scene officers dressed in white bodysuits looked for evidence in front of the building.
The sign over the front entrance was ripped off by the explosion, and it was reported that the hand grenade also caused substantial damage inside the building.
Scores of police in riot gear blocked the street about 50 metres from the site of the blast, standing in a row under a giant Turkish flag flying on a high mast planted in the front yard of the police building.
Mr Aldogan said the Gazi Mahallesi, as the area around the police station is known, was a quiet place, a view echoed by Hasan Solmaz, who runs a tea house nearby.
"Everyone wants to live in peace and quiet here," he said. Asked about the 1995 events known as the "Gazi riots", Mr Solmaz said "some outsiders" were causing trouble from time to time.
In March 1995, unknown assailants opened fire on Alevi civilians in the neighbourhood, triggering a protest march on a police station that led to further bloodshed. Unrest also spread to other parts of Istanbul.
Yesterday, a group of young men watching the police cordon in front of the explosion site in Sultangazi said both leftist and Kurdish militants could be behind the attack.
"There are many militant groups here that could do that kind of thing," one man said.
"I think they did that to draw attention to something," another man from the group said. "I think it was the PKK but it could have been the left, too."
The last time a suicide bomber struck in Turkey was October 2010, when a member of a PKK splinter group blew himself up in front of a police bus in Istanbul, wounding 32 people.
* With additional reporting by Reuters