Probe Of Istanbul Fire Underway

ISTANBUL, Turkey_A hardline Kurdish militant group claimed responsibility for a major fire at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport on Wednesday, a pro-Kurdish news agency reported on its Web site.

Government officials refused to comment on the claim, which could not be independently verified. Officials had earlier ruled out sabotage as a cause of the fire.

But a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said an investigation to determine the cause of the fire was still underway, and the state-owned news agency reported that police were looking at security camera video footage to determine the cause.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons Organization, a hardline group linked to the main Kurdish guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, said it started the blaze, which destroyed much of the cargo terminal at the airport, according to the Netherlands-based Firat News Agency's Web site.

Firat, which often receives information from Kurdish rebel leaders, said it received the claim by e-mail.

The hardline group has claimed eight bombings in Istanbul this year and recently said tourism and economic targets were among the group's priorities. Previous bombings left two dead and 47 injured.

The huge fire quickly engulfed the cargo section of Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport Wednesday, destroying most of the building and forcing about 2,000 workers to flee, authorities said.

Thick, black smoke from the blaze could be seen from 10 kilometers (6 miles) away and forced the closure of one of the airport's runways, causing flight delays. Three people suffered smoke inhalation, but no one was killed, authorities said.

The fire destroyed cargo including textile products and gold shipments, officials said. They said they would need more time to estimate the damage, but that it would total millions of dollars (euros).

The Dogan News Agency quoted Transportation Ministry official Habib Soluk as saying cargo would now be received at Istanbul's second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, on the Asian side of the city, and at the airport in Corlu, a town about 90 kilometers (50 miles) west of Istanbul.

Soluk also confirmed that the body of a female Malaysian citizen, which was to be repatriated in a coffin, was in the cargo area and burned in the fire.

Planes from the municipality filled their hulls with six tons of water at a time from the nearby Marmara Sea and made dozens of trips to drop it as the blaze was burning, flying low and at an angle to avoid a nearby Turkish Airlines building.

Authorities gave various possible causes for the fire, including a spark from a welder's torch or an electrical short-circuit. The fire began in a section where fuel depots were located.

"It was definitely not sabotage," said deputy governor Fikret Kasapoglu. "But there are various kinds of materials in there, flammable, explosive, so we have to be careful."

Dozens of fire trucks battled wild flames on land while the sea planes staged more than 70 sorties, pouring water to finally take the blaze under control after more than four hours.

The cargo operation of Turkish Airlines, which was in a separate section of the airport, was unaffected by the blaze. Most other airlines and carriers would be affected, and officials set up a crisis table to begin assessing losses.

As authorities raced to move parked cargo planes away from the burning building, thousands of passengers anxiously watched thick smoke rise from behind the large windows of the ultramodern terminal building, which is the main hub for domestic and international flights and which hosts millions of tourists each year.

The fire closed down one runway, causing delays up to a few hours, but authorities said there was no security risk for flights and encouraged passengers to fly. Turkish Airlines planes could be seen landing even as the fire raged.

"A huge black cloud came, it smelled like cables burning, the roof started burning," cargo worker Omer Toplar said.

Toplar and hundreds of his co-workers watched the blaze from about 100 meters (100 yards) away and were worried that the fire and the damage it caused could cost them their jobs.

Workers said the entire structure, some 150,000 square meters (1.6 million square feet), was in flames within five minutes.

"There was panic, no one thought the fire would get so big," said Sebahattin Yildiz, who said he owned cargo that was lost in the fire.

Kurdish militants have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey since 1984, in a fight that has left more than 37,000 dead. The group appears to be a radical offshoot of the PKK, which does most of its fighting in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons have vowed to bring the fight to Turkey's cities.

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Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report.

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