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Suspect in slaying of U.S. tourist in Istanbul captured after fleeing to Syria

By Gul Tuysuz and Ivan Watson, CNN
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Mon March 18, 2013
The body of Sarai Sierra, an amateur photographer from Staten Island, was found in Istanbul on February 2.
The body of Sarai Sierra, an amateur photographer from Staten Island, was found in Istanbul on February 2.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • He was captured in Turkey's Hatay province and flown to Istanbul, authorities say
  • He appears to have fled to neighboring Syria in an attempt to escape Turkish authorities
  • The body of Sarai Sierra, a tourist who went missing in January, was found last month
  • The mother from Staten Island, New York, was found slain near the old city walls of Istanbul

Istanbul (CNN) -- Turkish authorities have brought the chief suspect in the murder of an American woman slain in Turkey to Istanbul after he was apprehended at a border crossing between Turkey and Syria on Sunday.

The man suspected of killing Sarai Sierra, an American tourist who went missing on January 22, was caught in the border province of Hatay, according to a statement by the Hatay governorate.

The suspect, called "Z.T." and also known as "Laz Ziya," was caught "in the Reyhanli District of our province by security forces," the statement said.

Ziya T., is suspected of killing Sarai Sierra in Turkey last month.
Ziya T., is suspected of killing Sarai Sierra in Turkey last month.

Sierra, a mother and amateur photographer from Staten Island, New York, was found slain by a blow to the head on February 2 near the old city walls of Istanbul. After an investigation involving the interrogation of more than 20 suspects and the collection of blood samples from last known contacts, police identified Ziya as the primary suspect in the slaying.

READ: Turkish police identify suspect in U.S. woman's death

Turkish television showed video of police marching Ziya to an armored personnel carrier. After he was apprehended in Hatay, he was flown to Istanbul for processing late Sunday.

In a strange twist to a mystery that has been front-page news for weeks in Turkey, it appears the suspect fled to neighboring Syria in an attempt to escape Turkish authorities.

Missing American woman found dead
What happened to Sarai Sierra?

A purported videotaped confession made by the suspect before he was handed over to Turkish authorities has been distributed by the Turkish Internet news portal TimeTurk. In the statement, Ziya tells the camera he is speaking in Syria. The editor of TimeTurk says the video was taken near the Syrian city of Idlib 30 minutes before Ziya was handed over to Turkish authorities.

It is not clear whether the confession can be legally admitted as evidence in court, because it is possible the suspect made the video under pressure or threats from his captors in Syria.

"I lost myself. I can't really remember how it happened," Ziya said in the video.

"I must have hit her on the head with a heavy object," he said, adding that he was under the influence of an "extreme amount" of paint thinner.

"When I came to, she was dead. I covered her up," he said.

"And for nine days, I walked around in the same area. When on the 10th day the police found the body, I had to escape to Syria. And now I have been caught in Syria. And I am being handed back to Turkey today," Ziya added.

In the video, the suspect said he first fled to Karabuk, his hometown in the Black Sea region of Turkey, then to the border and into Syria.

This is not the first time suspects wanted in Turkey have been handed over. Last week, Syria handed over at least five suspects in a deadly car bombing of a busy Turkey-Syria border gate. The February bombing killed at least 14 people and wounded nearly 30.

Turkey has close ties with Syrian rebel groups that control large amounts of territory in northern Syria. Turkey has provided medical care for wounded Syrian fighters, while also hosting more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in refugee camps. This week, Syrian opposition groups are gathering in the commercial capital of Istanbul to choose the leader of a proposed interim government.

The delivery of suspects in Syria wanted by Turkish authorities twice in less than two weeks suggests armed groups inside Syria are cooperating closely with Turkish security forces.

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