- Associated Press - Sunday, October 31, 2010

ISTANBUL | A suicide bomber blew himself up Sunday beside a police vehicle in a major Istanbul square near tourist hotels and a bus terminal, wounding 32 people, including 15 policemen.

The attack in Taksim Square, which was followed by police gunfire and sent hundreds of panicked people racing for cover, coincided with the possible end of a unilateral cease-fire by Kurdish rebels, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Turkey, a NATO ally that has deployed troops in a noncombat role in Afghanistan, is also home to cells of radical leftists and Islamic militants.

Istanbul police Chief Huseyin Capkin said the bomber tried but failed to get into a parked police van and detonated the bomb just outside the vehicle, blowing himself to pieces. Riot police are routinely stationed at Taksim, a popular spot for street demonstrations that abuts a major pedestrian walkway whose shops and restaurants are usually packed.

At least 32 people, including 15 police officers, were injured, at least two of them seriously, Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu said.

After the blast, he said, investigators at the scene found and defused a package of plastic explosives that could have been detonated with the push of a button.

A witness, Muammer Ulutas, said a policeman fired four rounds at the body of the suicide bomber after the explosion. He glimpsed the remains of the assailant, who appeared to be in his early 20s.

The attack occurred as Istanbul was preparing to hold Republic Day parades to mark the 1923 founding of Turkey. The celebrations were planned for Friday, but were delayed owing to heavy rain. Taksim Square, a transport hub that is a major stop on the city’s underground train network and close to the Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and other major hotels, was festooned with Turkish flags.

Two suicide attacks in Taksim in 1999 and 2001 killed two police officers and wounded a total of 13 people. The first was carried out by a female Kurdish militant, and leftist extremists claimed responsibility for the second.

Kurdish rebels are fighting for autonomy in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, and their unilateral cease-fire was scheduled to expire at the end of October. The state has held secretive talks with the jailed leader of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Turkish acronym as PKK, in an effort to end the conflict.

But an ongoing trial of more than 150 Kurds, including a dozen elected mayors, on charges of rebel links is a sign of the deep reserves of mistrust between authorities and the ethnic minority.

Interior Minister Besir Atalay, speaking to Turkish journalists on a visit to China, said “certain suspicions, certain evidence” indicated who was behind the attack, but said the government would not rush to announce its theories.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was inaugurating a hamlet for villagers whose homes are to be flooded by a new dam in southeastern Turkey, said the suicide attack was aimed at “obstructing Turkey’s development.”

Turkey frequently accuses the PKK of carrying out attacks to prevent the economic and social progress of Turkey, which has made big strides as a regional power in recent years despite conflict between its Islamic-leaning government and secular elites linked to the military and judiciary.

A purported anti-government network that includes military officers faces charges of seeking to foment chaos that would topple Mr. Erdogan’s government, and secular critics say the trials are a government effort to silence dissent.