By Tim Hume and Isil Sariyuce
TURKEY (CNN) — 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.
As the dead were swiftly laid to rest, in accordance with Islamic tradition, their loved ones spoke of their agony.
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. 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.
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 traditionally hasn’t claimed responsibility for attacks on Turkish soil.
Pro-Kurdish party struck
The bomb struck in crowded streets of the Beybahce neighborhood of Gaziantep’s Sahinbey district on Saturday night during celebrations for the wedding of a Kurdish couple.
Gaziantep is about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.
The blast site was outside the apartment of the groom’s parents, where the married couple were to live.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party said in a statement that the wedding was for one of its members.
It added that the bombing 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.
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 key Syrian city of Manbij this month, cutting a key 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.
Turkey, which allows planes from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition to operate from its air base at Incirlik, has been a target for ISIS, with the group blamed for a series of bomb attacks in the country throughout the year.
In June, 44 people were killed by suspected ISIS suicide bombers at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
Erdogan: ‘No difference’ between Turkey’s enemies
Following the blast, Erdogan reiterated his position that there was “no difference” between the three main opponents of his government — ISIS, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the network of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, state-run Anadolu news agency reported Sunday.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of being behind a failed coup attempt last month; Gulen has denied the accusation.
“Those who cannot overcome Turkey and try to provoke people by abusing ethnic and sectarian sensitiveness will not prevail,” Anadolu quoted Erdogan as saying.
Vice President Joe Biden will visit Turkey on Wednesday, with the demand for Gulen’s extradition to be at the top of the agenda.
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 targets civilians.
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.
Since then, Anadolu reports, hundreds of Turkish security forces and about 5,000 PKK members have been killed.
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