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'Sizable Explosion' Hits Tourist Neighborhood In Istanbul


An explosion has killed as many as 10 people in Istanbul. This took place in one of Turkey's most famous tourist neighborhoods near the Blue Mosque. Let's try and sort out what happened with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is based in Istanbul, and he's on the line. Peter, take us through the morning there.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, this was a sizable explosion. I heard it in my apartment. And that's more than three miles from the scene. It's a really windy day here on the Bosphorus. So at first, I thought something had just crashed and toppled over. But then we got the news reports from Sultan Ahmed. That's that iconic neighborhood in the old city. And that's where the blast took place. And when I got there, police had cordoned off the site. But I ran into a shop owner, who was picking up bits of shrapnel at his place, 200 yards away from the blast site. And then we ran into a Britain, Johnny Green (ph). He'd been inside the Blue Mosque with two friends. And he had just stepped outside seconds before the explosion happened. Here's how he described that moment.

JOHNNY GREEN: We'd come out of the Blue Mosque and were just walking onto this boulevard. We had just turned the corner, just out of sight. So we heard it rather than saw. Then people were just, you know, running in every direction. Some people were running towards the action to help. And other people were just fleeing. So it was very much there, and we were sort of caught between a rock and a hard place.

KENYON: Now, he's actually a photojournalist. But he wasn't there on assignment. He's on a stopover. He was on his way to Africa for a different project. And he said to his two friends, well, we'll certainly never forget this stopover.

GREENE: Yeah, I can imagine that. Well, Peter, we've now heard, it sounds like, from Turkey's president. What did he have to say about this?

KENYON: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the initial security evaluation suggests it was a suicide bomber linked to Syria. Now, I thought I heard him call the bomber a Syrian national. But we're still trying to confirm that. There have been cases of Turks traveling to Syria and returning to carry out attacks. But in any case, there is a Syria connection according to the president. And he went on to say that Turkey's the number one terrorist target in the region and is fighting all groups simultaneously. And by that, he means not just the Islamic State but Kurdish militants, radical leftists and others. Now, if there is this Syria connection to this blast, that would certainly suggest ISIS or another radical group would be high on the list of suspects there.

GREENE: And just - you mentioned a few landmarks in Istanbul, the Bosphorus, you know, the famous waterway that goes through the city. The old city, you mentioned. For people who don't know the city well, just sort of place us at the Blue Mosque. What kind of area is this?

KENYON: Well, this is the heart of old Istanbul, old Constantinople, home of all the empires throughout the centuries - the Ottomans and the Byzantines, etcetera. The Blue Mosque is there, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace. The area is just crammed with tourists almost all the time - slightly less maybe now in the middle of winter than in summer. But even so, we are already getting reports that there were Germans, Norwegians, possibly Asian tourists also among the wounded. And President Erdogan says both foreigners and Turks were among the dead.

GREENE: And we should say this is a city that has had its share of recent terror attacks. This is not new, sadly.

KENYON: No, there was a very bad double suicide bombing in Ankara in October that left over a hundred people dead. Officials have blamed a Turk and a Syrian, who both were in Syria and influenced by ISIS, we're told. Then, at Istanbul's second airport, there was an explosion that killed a cleaning woman. There may be a Kurdish link to that, but that's not conclusive. But basically, the city has been on edge for months now. And everyone has just been waiting to see what would happen if an attack would happen here. And now it appears one has.

GREENE: OK, a story we'll be following all morning. That's NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting for us from Istanbul. Peter, thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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