Istanbul: Turkish authorities were on Sunday hunting for a lone gunman who they say opened fire on a new year’s celebration at one of Istanbul’s most popular nightclubs, killing at least 39 people and wounding another 70.
Early Sunday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the attack, which began with a spray of gunfire around 1am, was carried out by a single assailant, who had not yet been identified.
Speaking to reporters outside an Istanbul hospital, Mr Soylu called the attack “a massacre”.
“A manhunt for the terrorist is underway. We hope the attacker will be captured soon,” he told reporters.
He said the attacker had changed clothes to escape the scene.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that while some evidence had already been gathered, police were no closer to apprehending the suspect.
“Some details have started emerging … police and security officials will share information as it becomes available during the investigation,” he said.
According to Mr Soylu, 15 or 16 of those killed at the Reina club were foreigners but only 21 bodies had so far been identified. Five of the victims were Turkish citizens, including nightclub employees, he said.
Nationals of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, Israel and Belgium were among those killed, officials said. France said three of its citizens were wounded.
Australian embassy officials were working with Turkish authorities to determine if any Australians were caught up in the attack.
Officials spoke of a single attacker but some reports, including on social media, suggested there may have been more. Some witnesses reported hearing attackers shouting in Arabic.
The gunman shot his way into the Reina nightclub at around 1.15am local time, just over an hour into the new year, killing a police officer and a civilian before opening fire at random inside.
The incident bore echoes of an attack by militant Islamists on Paris’s Bataclan music hall in November 2015 that, along with assaults on bars and restaurants, killed 130 people.
“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 Hurriyet newspaper.
People talk to medics in an ambulance near the scene of an attack in Istanbul. Photo: AP
“I managed to push through and get out, it was terrible,” she said, describing seeing people soaked in blood.
Her husband, Lutfu Uyanik, was wounded in the attack but was not in serious condition.
The attack again shook 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.
The nightclub, one of Istanbul’s most iconic and popular with locals and foreigners alike, overlooks the Bosphorus Strait separating Europe and Asia in the city’s cosmopolitan Ortakoy district.
On the European side of Istanbul about 12 kilometres from the city centre, Ortakoy is an international travel destination known for its food stalls and vibrant night life. The area is a mix of stone, brick and wooden buildings along pedestrian lanes.
Around 500 to 600 people were thought to have been inside when the gunman opened fire. Some jumped into the waters of the Bosphorus and were rescued by police.
An image, reportedly of one of the gunmen involved in the attack at the Istanbul nightclub.
Mehmet Kocarslan, the club’s owner, told the Hurriyet.com.tr news site there had been increased security at the club for the past 10 days after US intelligence officials shared information about a planned attack. He said Kalashnikov rifles were used in the attack.
Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said the attacker had used a “long-range weapon” to “brutally and savagely” fire on people, apparently referring to an assault rifle.
“One person first kills the police officer outside, and then a civilian,” he said. “Inside he rained bullets brutally, mercilessly over innocent people who were there just to celebrate the new year and have fun.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting.
The mass killing was at least the fourth major attack in Turkey in less than a month, raising questions about the ability of the government, a NATO member and regional ally of the United States, to counter an array of threats stemming from the war in neighbouring Syria, as well as an escalating conflict with Kurdish militants inside Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would fight to the end against all forms of attack.
“As a nation, we will fight to the end against not just the armed attacks of terror groups and the forces behind them, but also against their economic, political and social attacks,” he said in a written statement.
“They are trying to create chaos, demoralise our people, and destabilise our country with abominable attacks which target civilians … We will retain our cool-headedness as a nation, standing more closely together, and we will never give ground to such dirty games.”
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 camouflaged as Santa Claus and others as street vendors, state news agency Anadolu reported.
International support from Turkey’s allies was swift, with US President Barack Obama quick to express his condolences in the wake of the attack.
“This afternoon the President was briefed by his national security team on the attack in Istanbul,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.
“The President expressed condolences for the innocent lives lost, directed his team to offer appropriate assistance to the Turkish authorities, as necessary, and keep him updated as warranted.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, responded on Twitter, saying his thoughts were with Turkey after this “cowardly act of terrorism”.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish friends,” he added.
Ankara and Istanbul have been targeted by several attacks in 2016 carried out by the Islamic State group or Kurdish rebels, killing more than 180 people.
Turkey is still recovering from a failed coup attempt that began July 15 in which at least 265 people were killed.
Although the coup effort sputtered in a matter of hours, Mr Erdogan responded with a sweeping, months-long crackdown targeting alleged dissidents across Turkish society.
In addition to arresting thousands of military personnel suspected of involvement in the coup, hundreds of thousands of civil servants, educational staff and journalists were purged.
The coup and the assassination of the Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara on December 19 raised further concerns that the country’s security establishment had grown ineffective.
The turmoil also raised doubts about how well Turkey would be able to participate in international counter-terrorism efforts, especially with regard to the Islamic State.
New York Times, Washington Post with wires