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The attackers began spraying bullets at airport guards at the terminal entrance and a shootout erupted before they blew themselves up one by one at around 10:00 pm (1900 GMT) Tuesday, Turkish authorities said.
The private Dogan news agency said the attackers had killed at least 32 people—including two police officers—and wounded 88 others.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an international “joint fight” against terror after the attack, the fourth deadly bombing in Istanbul this year alone.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which prompted the suspension of all flights at Turkey’s busiest airport.
Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said three suicide bombers had carried out the attack, striking during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Security camera footage widely circulated on social media appeared to capture two of the blasts. In one clip a huge ball of flame erupts at an entrance to the terminal building, scattering terrified passengers.
Another video shows a black-clad attacker running inside the building before collapsing to the ground—apparently felled by a police bullet—and blowing himself up.
Witnesses described scenes of panic as the blasts hit, while images on social media showed passengers lying on the floor and luggage trolleys overturned.
“It was very strong, everyone panicked and started running in all directions,” one witness told CNN Turk.
Security staff yelled at passengers as they rushed to evacuate them from the airport.
Police set up a security cordon around the site, while a dozen ambulances rushed to the scene.
Turkey has been hit by a string of deadly attacks in the past year, blamed on both Kurdish rebels and the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.
The Turkish airport attack also follows coordinated suicide bombings at Brussels airport and a city metro station in March that left 32 people dead.
Brussels airport tweeted its condolences, saying: “Our thoughts are with the victims of the attacks at @istanbulairport.”
“We wish them, their relatives & all airport staff strength & courage.”
Dogan news agency cited police sources indicating IS is believed to have played a role, though Turkish officials said it was too early to confirm a link.
Security expert Abdullah Agar told CNN Turk the attack bore the hallmarks of a jihadist attack.
“It really bears a resemblance to their methods,” he said in reference to the Brussels bombings, which were claimed by IS.
The US and French consulates warned people to stay away from the area, while Turkish officials said flights would be cancelled until at least 8:00 am on Wednesday.
After the airport carnage, Erdogan met with his prime minister and military chief.
“We urge the world, especially Western countries, to take a firm stand against terrorism,” Erdogan said in a statement.
“Despite paying a heavy price, Turkey has the power, determination and capacity to continue the fight against terrorism until the end.”
Istanbul, a major tourism hub that is home to some 15 million people, has suffered a series of attacks in recent months, including a bombing in the heart of the tourist district that killed a dozen German visitors and was blamed on IS.
Two months later, three Israelis and an Iranian were killed in a bombing on the city’s main Istiklal shopping street, also blamed on IS.
A blast on the tarmac at Istanbul’s other international airport, Sabiha Gokcen, killed a cleaner and wounded another in December, damaging several planes.
Located just outside Turkey’s biggest city, Ataturk airport served more than 60 million passengers in 2015, making it one of the busiest in the world.
Turkey has been hit by at least five attacks blamed on IS jihadists, including a blast in Ankara in October 2015 that left over 100 dead, though the group has never formally claimed responsibility for an attack in Turkey.
Turkey was long accused by its Western partners of turning a blind eye to the dangers posed by IS but has in recent months considerably stepped up police raids on the group’s cells in the country.
Ankara has meanwhile launched a sustained offensive against the outlawed rebel Kurdistan
Workers’ Party (PKK) following the collapse of a ceasefire last year.Hundreds of members of the Turkish security forces have been killed in PKK attacks since the truce collapsed.