Three suicide bombers opened fire before blowing themselves up in the main international airport in Istanbul yesterday, killing 36 people and wounding dozens more, the provincial governor and witnesses said.

Police fired shots to try to stop two of the attackers just before they reached a security checkpoint at the arrival hall of Ataturk airport, Europe's third-busiest, but they blew themselves up, a second Turkish official said.

Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin told reporters that 28 people had been killed and around 60 wounded. However, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim later revised the death toll to 36.

"According to assessments so far, 36 people have lost their lives and there were also many wounded," Yildirim told reporters at the site of the attack.

Several witnesses reported two explosions but Sahin said the authorities believed there may have been three suicide bombers.

A Turkish official said the vast majority of those killed were Turkish nationals but foreigners were also among the dead.

The roof came down

"There was a huge explosion, extremely loud. The roof came down. Inside the airport it is terrible, you can't recognise it, the damage is big," said Ali Tekin, who was at the arrivals hall waiting for a guest when the attack took place.

A German woman named Duygu, who was at passport control entering Turkey, said she threw herself onto the floor with the sound of the explosion. Several witnesses also reported hearing gunfire shortly before the attacks.

"Everyone started running away. Everywhere was covered with blood and body parts. I saw bullet holes on the doors," Duygu said outside the airport.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest in a string of suicide bombings in Turkey this year, but the Dogan news agency, citing police sources, said initial indications suggested Islamic State may have been responsible.

A Turkish government official said it was too soon to assign blame.

The attack bore some similarities to a suicide bombing by Islamic State militants at Brussels airport in March, which killed 16 people. A co-ordinated attack also targeted a rush-hour metro train, killing a further 16 people in the Belgian capital.

Paul Roos, 77, described seeing one of the attackers "randomly shooting" on the departures floor of the terminal.

"He was just firing at anyone coming in front of him. He was wearing all black. His face was not masked. I was 50 metres away from him," said Roos, a South African on his way back to Cape Town with his wife after a holiday in southern Turkey.

"We ducked behind a counter but I stood up and watched him. Two explosions went off shortly, one after one another. By that time he had stopped shooting," Roos told Reuters.

"He turned around and started coming towards us. He was holding his gun inside his jacket. He looked around anxiously to see if anyone was going to stop him and then went down the  escalator... We heard some more gunfire and then another explosion, and then it was over."

‘Could have been anywhere’

President Tayyip Erdogan said the attack should serve as a turning point in his country's fight against militant groups.

"The attack, which took place during the holy month of Ramadan, shows that terrorism strikes with no regard for faith and values," Erdogan said in a statement.

"The bombs that exploded in Istanbul today could have gone off at any airport in any city around the world," he said, urging all governments to join forces against terrorism.

Speaking in Parliament earlier, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said initial reports suggested one attacker had initially opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle, and then detonated explosives.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said six of those wounded had sustained serious injuries, while broadcaster NTV said the number of injured had risen to 106.

Ataturk is Turkey's largest airport and a major transport hub for international travellers. Pictures posted on social media from the site showed wounded people lying on the ground inside and outside one of the terminal buildings.

A helicopter buzzed overhead as police evacuated the building. Dozens of passengers walked back down access roads with their luggage, trying to hail cabs. The US Embassy urged US citizens to avoid the area.

A witness told Reuters that security officials prevented his taxi and other cars from entering the airport at around 9.50pm (2.50am Malaysian time). Drivers leaving the terminal shouted "Don't enter! A bomb exploded!" from their windows to incoming traffic, he said.

Television footage showed ambulances rushing to the scene. One witness told CNN Turk that gunfire was heard from the car park at the airport. Taxis were ferrying wounded people from the airport, the witness said.

Flights halted

The head of Red Crescent, Kerem Kinik, said on CNN Turk that people should go to blood donation centres and not hospitals to give blood and called on people to avoid main roads to the airport to avoid blocking the path of emergency vehicles.

Authorities halted the take-off of scheduled flights from the airport and passengers were transferred to hotels, a Turkish Airlines official said. Earlier an airport official said some flights to the airport had been diverted.

In the United States, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reacted to the explosions by putting armed, high-visibility patrols at the three main airports in the New York metropolitan region.

Turkey has suffered a spate of bombings this year, including two suicide attacks in tourist areas of Istanbul that are blamed on the Islamic State, and two car bombings in the capital, Ankara, which were claimed by a Kurdish militant group.

In the most recent attack, a car bomb ripped through a police bus in central Istanbul during the morning rush hour, killing 11 people and wounding 36 near the main tourist district, a major university and the mayor's office.

Turkey, which is part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State, is also fighting Kurdish militants in its largely Kurdish southeast.

One person was killed on Dec 23, 2015, when an explosion hit Istanbul's second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, located on the Asian side of the city. This attack was claimed by a Kurdish militant group.

- Reuters

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