At least 39 people were killed and 69 injured when a gunman opened fire in an Istanbul nightclub packed with revellers celebrating the New Year early Sunday, Turkish officials say.
A manhunt is underway for the attacker, who struck the popular Reina nightclub – a upscale waterfront nightspot, popular with celebrities and foreigners – at about 1:15 a.m. local time, officials say.
“Our security forces have started the necessary operations. God willing, he will be caught in a short period of time,” said Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, calling the attack an act of terrorism. Sixteen of the twenty-one victims identified so far are foreigners, said Soylu, with four of the injured in critical condition.
No organization has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, the fourth to hit Turkey in less than a month. The country, which experienced a failed coup attempt in July, faces multiple security threats and has weathered a string of terror attacks over the past year – carried out by both the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.
Describing the massacre as a “vicious” act, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Sunday to fight terrorism and its backers “to the end.”
“Turkey is firm on doing whatever it takes to protect its citizens’ safety and peace in the region,” he said.
The attack began when the gunman shot a police officer guarding the nightclub’s front gate, killing him and a civilian before entering the busy venue, Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin told reporters. “He then carried out this violent and cruel act by spraying bullets on innocent people who were celebrating the new year,” Sahin said.
Speaking to the Associated Press, clubgoer Sinem Uyanik said she was trapped under bodies during the attack, describing scenes that recalled the November 2015 IS massacre at Paris’ Bataclan concert hall.
“Before I could understand what was happening, my husband fell on top me,” she said. “I had to lift several bodies from on top of me before I could get out. It was frightening.”
Some of the hundreds of clubgoers present jumped into the Bosporus – the narrow strait separating European and Asian Turkey – to escape to massacre, Turkey’s private NTV news channel reported.
NTV and other outlets also reported that the attacker was dressed in a Santa Claus outfit and shouted in Arabic as he fired, though Turkish officials have not confirmed these details.
The nightclub’s owner, Mehmet Kocarslan, told Turkey’s Hurriyet news site that security at the club had been stepped up in the past 7-10 days following a warning from U.S. intelligence over a potential attack.
On Dec. 22, the U.S. released a statement warning its citizens in Turkey that “extremist groups are continuing aggressive efforts to conduct attacks throughout Turkey in areas where U.S. citizens and expatriates reside or frequent.” It advised that U.S. citizens “avoid large crowds or crowded places when possible.”
The attack came just days after the Nashir Media Foundation, a pro-IS media group, circulated messages calling for supporters to carry out lone wolf attacks on civilian targets in the West over the holiday season, the New York Times reported.
The United States condemned the attack and said it served to reinforce Washington’s determination to work with Turkey on combating terrorism.
“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,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Turkey faces multiple security threats
Turkey, a NATO member and key partner in the international coalition against IS, is struggling with its internal security, as highlighted by the assassination of the Russian ambassador by an off-duty police officer in Ankara last month. The country has been regularly hit by terror attacks as it continues to reel from the bloody failed coup in July, and grapple with spillover from the conflict in neighboring Syria.
Istanbul, the country’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, has been repeatedly targeted amid twin terror campaigns from IS and Kurdish separatists. On Dec 10., a double bombing outside an Istanbul football stadium that was claimed by Kurdish militants killed 45 people, most of them police officers. In June, 42 people were killed when suspected IS attackers struck the city’s main airport.
Kurdish militants tend to strike targets linked to Turkey’s security forces – such as in a recent bombing in Kayseri, central Turkey on Dec. 17 which killed 13 soldiers. IS, by contrast, typically strikes soft civilian targets, often where foreigners might be affected.
Since August, Turkey has also been waging a cross-border military campaign in northern Syria, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, targeting both Syrian Kurdish forces and IS militants in the region.
A major player in the Syrian conflict, Ankara has long supported opposition groups seeking to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, recently joining Assad’s key backers Russia and Iran in efforts to broker a solution to the conflict. Turkey is seeking to tamp down the chaos going on so close to its border, and is particularly anxious about the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish statelet along its southern border, which it fears would fuel separatist aspirations among Kurds in Turkey’s southeast.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched an authoritarian crackdown in the wake of the coup attempt, targeting dissidents in a sweeping purge of the country’s military, civil service, schools and newsrooms that has seen thousands jailed. A government blackout was imposed on news of the nightclub massacre while the attack was underway.