Istanbul shopping centre blasts toll rises to 17

The death toll in two bomb blasts in Istanbul rose to 17 today in an attack that sharply increased tension as Turkey's top court began deliberating on whether to ban the governing party.

The toll rose when one person died from wounds sustained in the Sunday evening blasts in a working class neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul, Governor Muammer Guler said. Five of the dead were children, he said.

More than 150 people were wounded, with 50 people being treated in hospital, including six in a serious condition.

"We have been fighting terror for 30 to 35 years. This fight will continue until we win it," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told local residents at the site of the blasts.

"Today is a day for unity," he said.

Armed forces chief General Yasar Buyukanit said in a statement: "The attacks, which were staged in a crowded street at a busy hour and without discriminating between men and women, young, old and children, showed once again the gory face, ruthlessness and despair of terrorism."

In the emotionally charged aftermath of the bombings, the Constitutional Court, Turkey's highest judicial body, began deliberating on whether the AK Party had engaged in Islamist activities and should be closed. The party denies the charges and a ruling is expected in early August.

The court case is linked to a long-running power struggle between Turkey's secularist establishment and the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which are at odds over the direction of the officially secular but predominantly Muslim country.

"Our problem is not whether or not the AK Party will be closed. Our problem at the moment is to keep our unity so our country will go in a different direction," Erdogan said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bomb attacks, the deadliest in Turkey since 2003. But police were increasingly looking at the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

"There are signs of links to the separatist group. Work continues on that," Guler said.

The PKK condemned the attack, the Firat news agency, which is close to the guerrillas, said on its website.

Newspapers said three people had been detained in connection with the attacks.

The site was still cordoned off today and police were not allowing people into the area other than shop owners.

Kurdish separatists, far-left groups and Islamist militants have all carried out bombings in Istanbul in the past.

The PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, has waged a deadly campaign for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey since 1984. But it usually does not target civilians.

"We know the killers," Sabah newspaper said in a headline above a picture of bodies strewn across a busy pedestrian area in Gungoren, near Istanbul's main international airport, where two bombs, minutes apart, tore through the crowds.

Officials said a first blast brought people into the streets and a larger bomb hidden in a rubbish bin exploded 10 minutes later just 50 metres away.

Several local residents blamed the separatists.

"Who is behind it? Of course it's the PKK. We should organise a big protest march. This has nothing to do with politics, this is all about the PKK," Orhan Balci, a 38-year-old textile businessman told Reuters.

"After the (Turkish military) bombings in northern Iraq they are in their death throes and they are targeting the people. We shouldn't back down, we should fight back, this is pure terrorism," Balci said.

The Istanbul attacks came hours after Turkish jets bombed suspected PKK positions in northern Iraq, used by guerrillas as a base from which to carry out strikes on Turkish territory.