Turkish authorities on Sunday were hunting for the lone gunman who opened fire on a new year’s celebration at one of Istanbul’s most popular nightclubs, killing dozens of people and wounding scores more in what officials have called an act of terror.
At least 39 people were killed, and another 70 people wounded, in the latest of a string of attacks that have shaken Turkey as it faces an array of threats both at home and as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Early Sunday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the attack, which began with a spray of gunfire around 1 a.m., was carried out by a single assailant, who has not yet been identified.
Speaking to reporters outside an Istanbul hospital, Soylu said the attacker changed clothes in order to escape the scene.
“Our security forces have started the necessary operations,” Soylu said, calling the attack “a massacre.”
Authorities identified 20 of the victims, Soylu said, adding that at least 15 of those killed are foreign nationals. He did not give the nationalities of the victims. Another five victims are Turkish citizens, including nightclub employees, he said.
Witnesses and officials described at least one gunman storming the club with a long-barreled rifle, and stampedes of panicked patrons scrambling for cover at the waterside club, called Reina. The venue, which is perched on the Bosphorus strait, is popular with Istanbul’s elite, including artists, singers, and soccer stars.
The assault began when a gunman shot and killed a police officer who was guarding the door, according to Istanbul Mayor Vasip Sahin, who spoke to reporters in front of the club about two hours after the shooting. After killing the policeman, the gunman “brutally and violently attacked innocent people who came here to enjoy themselves,” Sahin said.
Sefa Boydas, a professional soccer player who was at the club, described the scene on Twitter. He said he did not see who was shooting, but that the attack happened quickly. Police arrived soon after, he said, and he carried his girlfriend, who was wearing high heels, out of the club to safety.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan condemned the attack in a statement Sunday, saying the perpetrators sought to “create chaos” in Turkey, and that the nation was “determined to do whatever is necessary in the region to ensure its citizens safety and peace.” The statement was posted on the presidency’s official website.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting. The mass killing at the nightclub 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 critical regional ally of the United States, to counter threats stemming from the war across Turkey’s border in Syria, as well as an escalating conflict with Kurdish militants inside Turkey.
At least one of the recent assaults – a suicide bombing at a soccer stadium in central Istanbul – was claimed by a Kurdish militant group. Authorities are still investigating who might have planned other attacks, including the Dec. 19 assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, by a police officer who denounced the carnage in Syria’s civil war.
Turkey recently took a central role in trying to halt the hostilities in Syria, in coordination with Russia, which is allied with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A recent cease-fire announced by Turkey and Russia was endorsed by several Syrian rebel groups, but it did not include others, including radical Islamist groups that might seek to retaliate against the Erdogan’s government because of its cooperation with Russia.
The attacks have come despite a widening security dragnet by authorities and a broad crackdown by the government on those officials have branded as terrorists.
Ned Price, a White House National Security Council spokesman, released a statement condemning the attack. “That such an atrocity could be perpetrated upon innocent revelers, many of whom were celebrating New Year’s Eve, underscores the savagery of the attackers,” the statement said.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the assault and has “directed his team to offer appropriate assistance to the Turkish authorities,” said Eric Schultz, White House deputy press secretary.
At the time of the attack early Sunday, according to local media, hundreds of people were inside the club. Patrons reportedly jumped into the water to escape the gunfire, and dozens of ambulances could be heard heading in the direction of the club, in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district.
The club’s owner, Mehmet Kocarslan, told Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that there had been increased security at the club for a week or more, because of warnings from “American intelligence.” He told the paper that the gunmen had used Kalashnikov rifles.
“We were there, we were having fun, when all of a sudden people started running,” club patron Sinem Uyanik told Hurriyet. Uyanik was waiting outside a hospital, where her husband, who had also been at the club, was being treated for gunshot wounds.
“It was so horrible. It smelled like gunpowder,” Uyanik said. At some point, she fainted, and then “woke up and saw my husband covered in blood,” she told the paper.
“So many people were covered in blood,” she said.
Security forces later stormed the nightclub, Uyanik said. Police in riot gear and armored vehicles blocked the area around the venue, the Associated Press reported. Photos published by the state-run Anadolu news agency showed ambulances lined up outside the building.
Turkish authorities issued a temporary gag order on reporting from the scene of the nightclub. The order also barred media outlets from publishing any information on potential suspects, unless released through official statements.
Such bans are frequent in Turkey, where the government has embarked on a far-reaching crackdown on the news media. Still, images of the carnage circulated on social media early Sunday.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham, Kareem Fahim