A manhunt was underway for a gunman who opened fire on people at a packed nightclub on the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus waterway on New Year’s morning, killing at least 39 people, including 15 foreigners, then fled the scene.
The suspect escaped the scene by changing clothes at the club after the attack, according to reports on Turkish media. There have also been rumors that there was a second attacker, but officials are now just talking about one terrorist.
While Turkish authorities are starting to uncover evidence about a gun attack on an Istanbul nightclub which killed 39 people on Sunday but there is no clarity yet on who was responsible, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said. “Some details have started emerging, but the authorities are working towards a concrete result,” Yildirim told reporters, when asked about who might have been behind the attack.
“Police and security officials will share information as it becomes available during the investigation,” he said.
While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, Metin Gurcan, an Istanbul-based security analyst, told BBC “signs point to the Islamic State.”
Security camera footage obtained by AP from Haberturk newspaper, shows the male assailant dressed in black and carrying a backpack as he shoots down a police officer outside the Reina nightclub. Footage taken by a different camera shows him inside the venue wearing different clothes and a Santa Claus hat.
“A manhunt for the terrorist is underway. Police have launched operations. We hope the attacker will be captured soon,” said Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu adding that 15 or 16 of those killed at Reina were foreigners but only 21 bodies had so far been identified. He told reporters 69 people were in hospital, four of them in critical condition.
Nationals of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, Israel and Belgium were among those killed, officials said. France said three of its citizens were wounded.
The attacker, armed with a long-barreled weapon, killed a policeman and a civilian outside Istanbul’s popular Reina club at around 1:15 a.m. before entering and firing on people partying inside, Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin said.
“Unfortunately (he) rained bullets in a very cruel and merciless way on innocent people who were there to celebrate New Year’s and have fun,” Sahin told reporters.
A Turkish coast guard boat patrols in front of the Reina nightclub by the Bosphorus
As Reuters notes, the attack shook NATO member Turkey as it tries to recover from a failed July coup and a series of deadly bombings in cities including Istanbul and the capital Ankara, some blamed on Islamic State and others claimed by Kurdish militants. What makes the deadly terrorist attack even worse is that across Europe security services had been on alert for new year celebrations following the mid-December attack on a Christmas market in Berlin that killed 12 people. Only days ago, an online message from a pro-Islamic State group called for attacks by “lone wolves” on “celebrations, gatherings and clubs”.
The Turkish Hurriyet newspaper cited witnesses as saying the attackers shouted in Arabic as they opened fire at Reina. “We were having fun. All of a sudden people started to run. My husband said don’t be afraid, and he jumped on me. People ran over me. My husband was hit in three places,” one club-goer, Sinem Uyanik, told the newspaper. “I managed to push through and get out, it was terrible,” she said, describing seeing people soaked in blood.
Police secure the area near the Istanbul nightclub on January 1, 2017.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vehemently condemned “the terror attack in Istanbul’s Ortakoy neighborhood in the first hours of 2017” and offered condolences for those who lost their lives, including “foreign guests.” He dubbed the New Year’s shooting spree “dirty games,” vowing Turkey will fight to the end against all forms of terrorist attacks.
“As a nation, we will fight to the end against not just the armed attacks of terror groups, but also against their economic, political and social attacks,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in a written statement. “They are trying to create chaos, demoralize our people, and destabilize our country … We will retain our cool-headedness as a nation, standing more closely together, and we will never give ground to such dirty games,” he said.
Erdogan linked the attack to the situation in the region. Turkey neighbors Syria, where Ankara is conducting a military operation called Euphrates Shield, which is said to be targeting Islamic State and YPG forces.
The news received a strong international response, as world leaders, including those of Poland, Iran and Greece, condemned the attack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his Turkish counterpart a a telegram of condolences, saying “it is hard to imagine a more cynical crime than killing innocent people during New Year celebrations” adding that “terrorists don’t share moral values. Our common duty is to combat terrorists’ aggression.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, expressed condolences and directed his team to offer help to the Turkish authorities, the White House said.
Despite repeated warnings of a possible terrorist attack at a night club, an even bigger tragedy was avoided thanks to the prompt police response: dozens of ambulances and police vehicles were immediately dispatched to the club in Ortakoy, a neighborhood on the city’s European side nestled under one of three bridges crossing the Bosphorus and home to nightclubs, restaurants and art galleries, once news of the shooting around 1:15am local time emerged.
“I didn’t see who was shooting but heard the gun shots and people fled. Police moved in quickly,” Sefa Boydas, a Turkish soccer player, wrote on Twitter. “My girlfriend was wearing high heels. I lifted her and carried her out on my back,” he said.
Hurriyet quoted Reina’s owner, Mehmet Kocarslan, as saying security measures had been taken over the past 10 days after U.S. intelligence reports suggested a possible attack.
“US intelligence warned about such an attack about one week or 10 days ago – and measures were taken, including [on] the sea front. And look what has happened,” Kocarslan told Hurriyet.
As many as 600 people were thought to have been inside the club at the time of the attack. The Hurriyet newspaper cited witnesses as saying the attacker shouted in Arabic at Reina. “We were having fun. All of a sudden people started to run. My husband said don’t be afraid, and he jumped on me. People ran over me. My husband was hit in three places,” one club-goer, Sinem Uyanik, told the newspaper.
“I managed to push through and get out, it was terrible,” she said, describing seeing people soaked in blood.
Meanwhile, the Turkish response to the tragedy was familiar: a full media clamp down. The prime minister’s office issued a media blackout on the events and asked media to refrain from broadcasting and publishing anything that may cause “fear in the public, panic and disorder and which may serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”
Security measures had been heightened in major Turkish cities, with police barring traffic leading up to key squares in Istanbul and the capital Ankara. In Istanbul, 17,000 police officers were put on duty, some disguised as Santa Claus and others as street vendors, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported.