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Isis claims responsibility for Istanbul nightclub massacre as President Erdogan vows to track down killer

‘They are trying to create chaos, demoralise our people, and destabilise our country with abominable attacks that target civilians,’ says the Turkish leader

May Bulman,Kim Sengupta
Sunday 01 January 2017 12:10 GMT
Footage of Istanbul attack and aftermath

Isis has claimed responsibility for a mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub as Turkish police said they had detained eight people and were closing in on the chief suspect who carried out the attack.

The gunman, who is still at large, opened fire at a crowd of hundreds of people celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Reina nightclub, killing at least 39 people and injuring dozens more. The brutal onslaught lasted seven minutes in which time the armed man fired more than 100 bullets into the crowd. It is thought he then changed his clothes and disappeared.

Eight people have been detained in relation while Turkish police have issued an image of the man suspect of carrying out the attack.

An image of the suspect released by Turkish police (Reuters)

The victims include people from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and Libya, according to a Turkish government minister. Israel confirmed one of its citizens, 19-year-old Leanne Nasser, was also among the dead.

"Information about the fingerprints and basic appearance of the terrorist have been found. In the process after this, work to identify him swiftly will be carried out," Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.

He added it was clear that Turkey's military incursion into Syria, launched in August, had annoyed terror groups and those behind them, but said the offensive would continue until all threats to Turkey were removed.

Kurtulmus also said the attack bore significant differences to previous attacks in Turkey and that it had been carried out to create divisions within Turkish society.

The extremist militant group has released a statement hailing the actions of a "heroic soldier", and said the man fired an automatic rifle and also detonated hand grenades in "revenge for God's religion and in response to the orders" of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

It says: "In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.

Police have established similarities with the high-casualty attack at Ataturk Airport in June and are investigating whether the same Isis cell carried out both attacks.

Eight people have been arrested in connection with the attack although the gunman is not among them.

Turkish President Erdogan said his country was determined to destroy the source of threats against it. While no one had so far claimed responsibility, Isis and extreme Kurdish separatist groups have staged similar attacks in the past.

“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," the President said in a statement.

“They are trying to create chaos, demoralise our people and destabilise our country with abominable attacks that 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.”

Medics carry a wounded person after the attack at a popular nightclub in Istanbul (AP)

Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu said efforts were continuing to find the attacker, who entered the nightclub at around 1.15am on Sunday (10.15pm UK time), killing a police officer and a civilian before opening fire into the crowd of up to 700 people inside.

Mr Soylu told reporters: “A manhunt for the terrorist is under way. Police have launched operations. We hope the attacker will be captured soon.”

At least 69 people were being treated in hospital, with four said to be in a serious condition, the minister added.

Turkey has experienced a series of lethal attacks over the last year, with Mr Erdogan's government blaming a number of its list of foes.

The reaction of officials in the immediate aftermath of the New Year’s Eve massacre, however, was that it is likely to have been the work of Isis.

Kurdish groups have tended to target security forces rather than carry out indiscriminate killings of civilians.

And, while Ankara had blamed the followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen for other attacks such as the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey earlier this month, they have yet to do so for what happened at the Reina nightclub.

Turkish forces are currently involved in a major military operation in northern Syria against Isis as well as the Kurds.

Isis has carried out a series of devastating bombings and shootings in Turkey specifically targeting, at times, the country’s tourist industry. This, along with general turbulence, has resulted in a huge drop in visitors, especially from the West, to the country.

Police hunt attacker after at least 39 killed in Istanbul massacre

The nightclub, Reina, on the shores of the Bosphorous, had gained a chic reputation among Turkey’s affluent, Westernised, secular young people, as well as sports stars and expatriates.

Foreign visitors have included Daniel Craig, Kylie Minogue, Naomi Watts and Jon Bon Jovi. Conservative Muslims have been critical of venues such as these, as well as events such as New Year’s Eve celebrations, holding that they are incompatible with Turkey’s Islamic heritage.

In the violent confusion of the attacks taking place in Turkey there has been a tendency to see a hidden American hand at play, something the Erdogan government had encouraged as relations with Washington have soured.

There have been repeated allegations that US intelligence had colluded with Mr Gulen, who is based in Pennsylvania as well as Islamist groups like Isis.

In response to social media rumours that Washington knew an attack was due to take place and failed to warn Turkey, the American embassy put out a statement that, although a travel warning had been issued to US nationals, “there was no information about threats to specific entertainment venues, including the Reina club".

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) urged people in the area to “remain vigilant”, and said they could not yet confirm whether there were any British victims.

A spokesperson told The Independent: “We are in touch with the local authorities following reports of an incident at a night club in Istanbul. It is still too early to know whether any British nationals were involved.”

Travel advice on the the FCO website was updated following the attack, saying: "There is an ongoing police operation in Istanbul as a result of the attack, and the attacker may still be at large.

"You should exercise vigilance and caution at this time, and follow the advice and instructions of the security authorities."

Turkish special force police officers and ambulances are seen at the site of the attack (Getty)

Local reports said some people jumped into the waters of the Bosphorus strait to escape the massacre.

There were reports that the gunman had dressed as Father Christmas, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said later: "There is no truth to this. He is an armed terrorist as we know."

Witnesses said the man had spoken in Arabic, suggesting he was not Turkish.

Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin told reporters the attacker had used a “long-range weapon” to “brutally and savagely” fire on people, apparently referring to some form of assault rifle.

“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,” Mr Sahin said.

The Turkish government imposed a temporary media blackout on local coverage of the attack, banning the publication or broadcast of anything that could cause “fear in the public, panic and disorder and which may serve the aims of terrorist organisations”.

Security in Turkish cities had been heightened during the run-up to the New Year with 17,000 police officers, some camouflaged as Santa Claus, on duty in Istanbul, state news agency Anadolu said. This use of fancy-dress camouflage may have been the source of the confusion about the gunman's clothes.

The mass shooting came at the end of a bloody year in Turkey, where terror attacks by Isis and Kurdish extremist groups resulted in the deaths of more than 180 people.

It is not yet clear whether the attacker had links with terrorist groups, but a security expert said he believed it was a “very typical Isis attack”.

Security analyst Metin Gurcan told Sky News: “Isis hasn’t claimed the attack yet, but it is likely that this is a very typical Isis attack, because if you look at Isis attacks inside Turkey in 2016, you see that Isis hit similar targets.

“The choice of a very well-known nightclub in which a Christmas party was going on is a perfect fit for an Isis objective."

In the hour after the attack, Justice minister Bekir Bozdağ wrote on Twitter: “This is a treacherous attack on Turkey, our peace, our unity, our brotherhood and all of us."

World leaders have offered assistance to Turkey.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted: “Thoughts with Turkey after cowardly act of terrorism in Istanbul nightclub attack. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish friends.”

Barack Obama offered his condolences for the innocent lives lost, and directed his team to offer appropriate assistance to the Turkish authorities, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who is a joint guarantor with Mr Erdogan of the Syrian ceasefire, reportedly sent a message to the Turkish President stating: “It is hard to imagine a more cynical crime than killing innocent people during New Year celebrations.

“However, terrorists don't share moral values. Our common duty is to combat terrorists’ aggression.”

Speaking at the opening of Sunday's cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu quoted Chancellor Merkel’s remarks over the weekend that “the biggest threat to the future of the world is from extremist Islamic terror”, the paper reports.

And Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, wrote on Twitter: “2017 starts with an attack in Istanbul. Our thoughts are with victims and their loved ones. We continue to work to prevent these tragedies.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, condemned the attack and called for concerted international efforts to fight terrorism, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Amid the manhunt, armed police in riot gear blocked off the area surrounding the club, which is one of the most popular spots in the city, as clubbers wearing suits and cocktail dresses poured into the street.

In addition to the 15 foreign nationals, five of the dead have been identified as Turkish people, up to four of whom were working in the club. Authorities had not yet identified 19 others.

Witnesses have described seeing people “soaked in blood” as they tried to push their way to safety.

Sinem Uyanik told the Hurriyet newspaper: “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. I managed to push through and get out, it was terrible. People were soaked in blood.”

Another witness, Sefa Boyd, told local media: “People were escaping to the right and left, leave the victims, where the folks are, and my girlfriend fainted.

“It was the most crowded hours at the time, the crowd was crowded inside. but you don't think that this kind of thing will happen in a place like Reina.”

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