A man lays on a coffin as mourners gather during a funeral for victims of the Saturday attack on a wedding party that left 50 dead in Gaziantep, Turkey on August 21.
ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images
A man lays on a coffin as mourners gather during a funeral for victims of the Saturday attack on a wedding party that left 50 dead in Gaziantep, Turkey on August 21.
Now playing
02:33
Turkish president blames ISIS for wedding attack
title:   duration: 00:00:00  site:   author:   published:   intervention: yes  description:     Gaziantep, Turkey
Anadolu Agency
title: duration: 00:00:00 site: author: published: intervention: yes description: Gaziantep, Turkey
Now playing
01:05
Video shows explosion rock wedding party
turkey tourist area terror attack dnt damon wrn_00023015.jpg
turkey tourist area terror attack dnt damon wrn_00023015.jpg
Now playing
02:30
Tourist hotspot targeted in Turkey terror attack
DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY - MARCH 21: Kurdish men flash v-signs as they  hold up a flag with a picture of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan during Newroz celebrations, on March 21, 2015 in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Thousands of Kurds gather for the Newroz spring festival in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey under tight security after months of fighting between security forces and Kurdish separatists, and a series of bombings in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Ulas Tosun/Getty Images)
Ulas Tosun/Getty Images Europe/Ulas Tosun/Getty images
DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY - MARCH 21: Kurdish men flash v-signs as they hold up a flag with a picture of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan during Newroz celebrations, on March 21, 2015 in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Thousands of Kurds gather for the Newroz spring festival in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey under tight security after months of fighting between security forces and Kurdish separatists, and a series of bombings in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Ulas Tosun/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:07
Terror groups in Turkey
2015-11-12 14:17:13 Intv with Turkish president Erdogan
CNN
2015-11-12 14:17:13 Intv with Turkish president Erdogan
Now playing
04:45
Turkish president: International terrorism on G20 agenda
turkey isis oil trade dougherty lkl ctw_00001630.jpg
Reuters
turkey isis oil trade dougherty lkl ctw_00001630.jpg
Now playing
03:22
Russia accuses Turkey of involvement in ISIS oil trade
amanpour ahmet davutoglu _00033609.jpg
amanpour ahmet davutoglu _00033609.jpg
Now playing
10:48
Turkish PM pledges 'a new Turkey'
Turkish President Erdogan on Syria ISIS and PKK _00013804.jpg
Turkish President Erdogan on Syria ISIS and PKK _00013804.jpg
Now playing
04:56
Analyst: Erdogan sees PKK threat as equal to ISIS
us syria airstrikes walsh lkl_00011908.jpg
us syria airstrikes walsh lkl_00011908.jpg
Now playing
02:07
U.S. fighters launch first airstrikes from Turkey
damascus omran interview pleitgen _00004517.jpg
damascus omran interview pleitgen _00004517.jpg
Now playing
01:28
U.S. using key Turkish airbase to strike ISIS
A relative mourns over the coffin of Korkmaz Tedik, a board member of the Turkish Labour Party (EMEP), who was killed in twin bombings in Ankara the day before during his funeral in the capital on October 11, 2015 . Turkey woke in mourning on October 11 after at least 95 people were killed by suspected suicide bombers at a peace rally of leftist and pro-Kurdish activists in Ankara, the deadliest such attack in the country's recent history. AFP PHOTO /ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
A relative mourns over the coffin of Korkmaz Tedik, a board member of the Turkish Labour Party (EMEP), who was killed in twin bombings in Ankara the day before during his funeral in the capital on October 11, 2015 . Turkey woke in mourning on October 11 after at least 95 people were killed by suspected suicide bombers at a peace rally of leftist and pro-Kurdish activists in Ankara, the deadliest such attack in the country's recent history. AFP PHOTO /ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:17
ISIS blamed for October 2015 Turkey terror attack
turkey wins nato support lklv robertson_00005612.jpg
turkey wins nato support lklv robertson_00005612.jpg
Now playing
01:37
Turkey wins NATO support for anti-terror operations

Story highlights

NEW: Authorities now unclear of bomber's age

Bomb targeted a wedding of a member of a pro-Kurdish political party

Bombing in Gaziantep is Turkey's deadliest terror attack this year

(CNN) —  

The Turkish government is now backtracking on its initial claim that the attacker who bombed the Kurdish wedding celebration in southern Turkey on Saturday night was a young teenager.

The bombing killed 54 people in Gaziantep near the Syrian border and it stunned Turks – not just for the high death toll but also because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that the bomber was between 12 and 14 years old.

ISIS, which has used children in combat or to act as human bombs in attacks across the Middle East, is suspected in the attack, Erdogan said. No group has claimed responsibility for the blast.

On Monday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, speaking to reporters in the capital of Ankara, said Turkey does not know who was behind the attack. He said it’s unclear at the present time whether the attacker was “a child or an adult.”

It is rumored that the attacker was a child, Yildirim said.

“The security forces are focusing on it and trying to find clues related to it,” the prime minister said.

Many of those killed were young teens

Twenty-two of the 54 killed in a devastating bomb attack that struck the wedding were under 14, a Turkish official said Monday.

The revelation added a fresh layer of horror to the bombing, which also wounded dozens of others. It was the deadliest in a string of blasts across Turkey this year.

The bomb struck in crowded streets of the Beybahce neighborhood of Gaziantep’s Sahinbey district during celebrations for the wedding of a Kurdish couple.

The blast disproportionately killed women and children, as it had been timed to detonate during a part of the festivities when those groups painted themselves with henna, authorities said.

As the dead were swiftly laid to rest, in accordance with Islamic tradition, their loved ones spoke of their anguish.

Emine Ayhan, who lost four of her five children and whose husband was seriously injured, told Turkish television: “If my remaining child was not alive, I would commit suicide.”

Hakki Okur, 14, was among the young victims. His cousin, Mesut Bozkurt, recounted searching for the teen throughout the night following the blast before his family was summoned to the hospital to identify his body.

“No injuries on his head, but burns on his chest,” Bozkurt said.

“We think he may have been trapped in the panic since he was a skinny boy.”

A pair of shoes remains near the scene of the weekend attack on a wedding party in Gaziantep, Turkey.
AHMED DEEP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A pair of shoes remains near the scene of the weekend attack on a wedding party in Gaziantep, Turkey.

ISIS has a strong presence in Gaziantep

ISIS’ child soldiers: What will happen to ‘cubs of the caliphate’?

Authorities found remnants of an explosive vest at the scene, and officials said they are not clear whether it was detonated remotely or by the bomber.

ISIS, which has struck before in Gaziantep and reportedly has a strong presence in the city, traditionally hasn’t claimed responsibility for attacks on Turkish soil.

Gaziantep is about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.

Child bomber thwarted in Iraq

On Sunday, a would-be child bomber was captured by security guards in Kirkuk – a city in northern Iraq with a large Kurdish population. Broadcaster Kurdistan 24 aired footage of guards apprehending the teen and stripping him of his suicide vest before he could strike.

Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk province, told CNN that the thwarted bomber was a 15-year-old who arrived from Mosul – the largest city under ISIS control – a week earlier. Following an earlier suicide attack in the city Sunday, the guards noticed something odd about the teen and stopped him before he struck his target, a Shia mosque.

“He is trained and brainwashed,” Karim told CNN.

“They tell them if they do this, they will go to heaven and have a good time and get everything that they ever wanted.”

Mia Bloom, a Georgia State University professor who is an expert on child soldiers and terrorism, said ISIS made wide use of children in conflict, typically employing them as bombers or snipers, either attached to adult fighting units or operating on their own.

The organization has eulogized more than 250 child attackers on its channels on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app the terror group widely uses.

ISIS has lured children “through a variety of tricks and treats, the way pedophiles lure in young kids,” she said.

But often – if child soldiers are internally displaced persons, as the thwarted Kirkuk bomber was reported to be, or otherwise vulnerable – they may feel “that they had no choice but to join … perhaps in exchange for food or protection or not upsetting the authorities in Raqqa or in Mosul.”

Child bombers who are coerced often deliberately fail to launch their attacks, as the teen in Kirkuk may have done, she said.

People wait Sunday near freshly dug graves for the victims of the Gaziantep blast.
ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
People wait Sunday near freshly dug graves for the victims of the Gaziantep blast.

Pro-Kurdish party struck

Turkish news agency DHA broadcast footage showing the bride and groom overcome by emotion as they returned to the blast site at an apartment building that was home to the groom’s parents and where the newlyweds were to live after their wedding.

Distraught to revisit the scene of so much bloodshed, the couple were rushed back to the hospital for treatment, with the overwhelmed bride carried into the ward by her husband and a relative.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party said in a statement condemning the blast that the wedding was for one of its members.

It added that the bombing, which it said had killed many children and women, resembled other suspected ISIS attacks on the party in Turkey, such as in Suruc in July 2015 and in Ankara in October.

The latter attack, targeting a peace rally near the capital’s central railway station, claimed more than 100 lives, making it the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.

“Over the years, Gaziantep has gradually become a nest for ISIS,” said the statement from the party’s Central Executive Board.

“The people of Gaziantep have been living in an environment with ISIS members who amass weapons and organize mass meetings.”

The statement criticized Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party for failing to prevent such attacks and said its “hate speech, discriminating and dividing attitude in democratic political arenas furnishes the conditions” for such acts.

Relations between the government and Turkey’s Kurdish minority have been strained as a result of a decades-long Kurdish insurgency.

Mourners weep at a funeral Sunday for victims of the bombing in the southern Turkish city.
ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners weep at a funeral Sunday for victims of the bombing in the southern Turkish city.

Kurds targeted by ISIS

The Kurds have become key American allies in the battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, placing Kurdish targets squarely in the Sunni terror group’s cross hairs.

Kurdish militia played a central role in driving the group from the Syrian city of Manbij this month, cutting a main supply route from the Turkish border to its heartland in Raqqa.

The attack hit an outdoor wedding celebration in a conservative Kurdish neighborhood in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. In a year of bloody terrorist attacks in Turkey, the wedding bombing ranks among the worst, the death toll surpassing the attack on the Ataturk Airport, which killed 44.

The terror group has been blamed for a series of bomb attacks throughout Turkey, which allows planes from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition to operate from its air base at Incirlik.

In June, 44 people were killed by suspected ISIS suicide bombers at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

ISIS is believed to have extensive cells throughout Turkey. Citing Turkish security sources, Anadolu reported last month that 5,300 suspected ISIS members had been detained in Turkey.

A mourner leans on a coffin at a funeral for victims of the Gaziantep blast.
ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
A mourner leans on a coffin at a funeral for victims of the Gaziantep blast.

Ongoing turmoil

Even before the attempted July 15 coup, Turkey had experienced a year of bloodshed and political turmoil, weathering a string of deadly bomb blasts, blamed variously on ISIS and the PKK.

In the most recent attacks, 11 people were killed and hundreds injured in three bombings targeting security forces in eastern Turkey last week. The Turkish government blamed the PKK.

The Turkish government blamed the PKK, which has typically targeted police and the military, whereas ISIS tends to launch mass casualty attacks on soft, civilian targets.

Clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces have flared up again since a peace process crumbled in 2015, bringing an end to a two-year ceasefire.

Turkey’s downward spiral

People gather early Sunday at the scene of the explosion in Gaziantep.
Eyyup Burun/AP
People gather early Sunday at the scene of the explosion in Gaziantep.

CNN’s Tim Hume wrote and reported from London, and Isil Sariyuce and Ben Wedeman reported from Gaziantep. CNN’s Joe Sterling, Ghazi Balkiz, Robyn Curnow, Karen Smith, Carol Jordan and Joel Williams also contributed to this report.