Istanbul on edge as blast claims German lives

The apparent suicide bomb attack in Turkey has left at least 10 people dead, nine of them German nationals. As Anna Lekas Miller reports from Istanbul, the situation remains tense as conspiracy theories do the rounds.

Around 10.30 a.m., a loud clap that sounded like thunder echoed throughout Istanbul.

A few minutes later, news broke that the sound was a bomb, exploding in Sultanahmet Square - the area between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, that, as the main stretch of public space between the two major tourist attractions, is often bustling as a first stop for Istanbul's many tourists. While the perpetrator is still unknown, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attack as an "act of terrorism" and posited that the attacker - a suicide bomber - was of Syrian origin, and, according to security sources, quite possibly a member of the "Islamic State" (IS) group.

The bomber's exact affiliates, as well as the type of explosive used, are still unknown. A temporary broadcast ban has been imposed as investigations continue.

Trying to figure out what is going on

German victims

Ambulance sirens echoed throughout the city, as first responders tried to reach the scene. At least 10 people were killed and 15 other critically injured and Turkish officials say at least nine of the dead are German nationals. The tram services, an integral part of public transportation which normally run from the Kabatas port to Bagcilar, in the western part of the city, stopped at the Eminonu Station, cutting off access to the area of the attacks. Most taxi drivers avoided the area, instructing passengers to walk instead.

Following the tram line up the cobble-stoned street to the Hagia Sophia resembled a miniature exodus. Tourists, Nikon cameras still slung around their necks, hastily scurried down the street, some with their luggage in hand. Shopkeepers stood on the threshold of empty shops, staring out at the quickly emptying streets. Anyone with a television had the news playing, eyes glued to the screen, hoping for updates.

"Istanbul is such a great city for tourists - we have so many historical things for the tourists to see, and enjoy," Ahmet, a barman working only a five-minute walk away from Sultanahmet Square, told DW. "But this," he continued, making a dramatic explosion gesture with his hands, "This will kill everything we have."

Conspiracy theories abound

Police helicopters circled around the iconic minarets of the Blue Mosque, as police sealed off the part of the square where the attack had taken place. Still, in spite of the fear of a second attack - as is often the strategy - tourists and locals milled around the area, sitting on benches - enjoying tea, or quietly praying.

On the street, and in the cafes that pepper the usually bustling area, conspiracy theories swirled.

"I think it was IS," said Mahmut, taking a drag from a cigarette outside his shop on one of the backstreets of Sultanahmet.
"It could have been the Russians," the neighboring restaurant manager Durum suggested, pointing out that since the Turkish army shot down a Russian jet for violating Turkish airspace in late December, Turkish relations with Moscow have been tense.

Tourism takes a hit

"It isn't the first time this area has been attacked," he continued, referencing a string of smaller-scale attacks that have struck the city in recent years, many of which have been attributed to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). "But I think this time tourism in Istanbul is really over."

Locals are attempting to put on a brave face and get on with their daily activities

Around noon, ordinary life began to resume. The tram started running again, and nearby restaurants welcomed cautious customers for lunch. However, several lingering and long-term effects remain. In addition to the anxiety surrounding Istanbul's already fragile tourism industry, the Turkish Lira, already dramatically weakened due to political instability surrounding last year's election, and the escalation of violence in the southeast, dropped to a record low.

"Unfortunately we are used to this in Istanbul, and of course, even more so throughout the rest of the country," Fatima, an onlooker, told DW.

"Right now it is just important to avoid crowded areas and stay safe."