The wedding on Saturday night was winding down, and some guests had already left. But the music was still playing and people were still dancing in the narrow streets of Gaziantep, a city not far from the Syrian border.
Just then a child meandered into the gathering and detonated a vest of explosives.
Suddenly, the most joyous of occasions became a scene of blood and gore, with body parts scattered all around.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the bomber at the street wedding late Saturday in the city of Gaziantep close to Syria was aged “between 12 and 14” and that initial findings showed it had been “perpetrated by Daesh (ISIS)”. He described the attack in Southeastern Turkey as a barbaric event.
The bride and groom – Besna and Nurettin Akdogan – were rushed to hospital but were not seriously wounded.
According to the state-run Anadolu news agency, the bride was released from hospital, saying as she left: ‘They turned our wedding into a bloodbath.’
She later returned to hospital after repeatedly fainting, Anadolu reported.
Media said the majority of those dead were children or teenagers, with 29 of the 44 victims identified so far aged under 18. At least 22 victims were under 14, a Turkish official added.
There were no further details on the bomber’s identity, but Erdogan said IS had been trying to “position itself” in Gaziantep which lies just 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Syria and is a major hub for refugees from the over five-year civil war.
The attack was the deadliest in a string of terrorist bombings that have struck Turkey this year, as it grapples with the spiraling chaos of spillover from the war in Syria. Bombings this year that Turkish officials have blamed the Islamic State for have struck Istanbul’s old city, near the Blue Mosque; its most famous shopping boulevard, Istiklal Avenue; and, in June, Istanbul’s main airport, among the busiest in Europe.
Turkey is also reeling from a failed military coup last month that aimed to topple the government of Mr. Erdogan and left at least 240 people dead. That conspiracy was blamed on followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan said on Saturday that there was no difference between the various terrorist organizations — the Islamic State, Kurdish militants or followers of Mr. Gulen — that are attacking the country.
In normal times, Gaziantep is famous for its cuisine, especially baklava, the sweet pastry made with pistachios grown nearby. Before war broke out, busloads of Syrians crossed the border almost daily to shop in Gaziantep, as Mr. Erdogan pushed stronger economic ties with Syria.
Yet in recent years the city became a hub for lives upended — and preoccupied — by the civil war in Syria. Spies, foreign fighters, diplomats, journalists, relief workers and refugees passed through the city, sometimes all gathering at the same Starbucks. In the earlier days of the conflict it was a place of intrigue, transformed much as the Pakistani border city of Peshawar was during the 1980s, when American-backed rebels moved through on their way to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
And then Gaziantep became more sinister and violent. The police found an Islamic State bomb-making facility in the city, which they said was used in an attack in Ankara last year that killed more than 100 people. The bomber who struck Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue came from there, officials said. The Islamic State also carried out murders of Syrian journalists in the city.
On Saturday, the city’s place as not just a remote transit hub for the war but a battleground itself came into focus again.
The Hurriyet daily said that DNA tests were under way to ascertain the identity, nationality and gender of the bomber.
It is possible that the bomber had come over the border from Syria but IS is also known to have built homegrown cells inside Turkey in Gaziantep and even Istanbul, wrote its well-connected columnist Abdulkadir Selvi.
He said Turkish security forces believed that attack had been timed as retaliation by jihadists for offensives both by Kurdish militias and pro-Ankara Syrian opposition forces against IS in Syria.
“There’s a fight against IS but we are paying the price,” he wrote.
‘The aim of terror is to scare the people but we will not allow this,’ said Deputy Prime Mehmet Simsek, who also represents Gaziantep in the Turkish parliament.
Simsek said, ‘This was a barbaric attack. It appears to be a suicide attack. All terror groups, the PKK, Daesh, the (Gulen movement) are targeting Turkey. But God willing, we will overcome’
Simsek later traveled to Gaziantep along with the country’s health minister to visit the wounded and inspect the site of the attack.
‘This is a massacre of unprecedented cruelty and barbarism,’ he told reporters in Gaziantep. ‘We … are united against all terror organizations. They will not yield.’
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim condemned the bombing that turned ‘a wedding party into a place of mourning’ and vowed to prevail over the ‘devilish’ attacks.
Hours before the attack on Saturday, the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, met with journalists over breakfast at an old Ottoman palace, once used by sultans for hunting excursions, that overlooks the Bosporus in Istanbul. He said Turkey would take a more active role in diplomatic efforts to end the war, working closely with world powers like Russia and Iran, two of Mr. Assad’s most ardent backers.
Calling the Syrian conflict “the bleeding wound of the globe,” he said Turkey would accept a role for Mr. Assad during an interim period while the long-term future of the country was being resolved.
In a sign that Turkey’s position was becoming gradually more aligned with Russia and Iran, he added that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could remain temporarily during a transition period.
Iran and Russia are the main allies of Assad whereas Turkey has always insisted his exit was a precondition for the end of the conflict.
Turkey was long accused of turning a blind eye to or even abetting the rise of ISIS in Syria, claims it vehemently denies, but has taken a tougher line after the jihadist attacks on its soil.
The United States condemned the attack and said Vice President Joe Biden would discuss the fight against terrorism during a visit to Ankara this coming week.
Funerals for all 44 victims identified so far took place on Sunday with an AFP photographer saying that some covered relatives’ coffins with the Kurdistan flag.
The hillside graveyard was pock-marked before the ceremony with the holes of dozens of freshly dug graves for the victims.