Turkish police are ‘closing in’ on nightclub attacker
Gunman killed 39 people at Istanbul venue in an assault claimed by Islamic State
Police in Turkey say they are closing in on a man suspected of carrying out a massacre at an upscale nightclub in Istanbul which killed 39 people in the early hours of Sunday morning and was claimed by Islamic State.
Authorities say the man’s fingerprints have been identified, while video footage depicting his face and appearance was broadcast by Turkish media outlets on Monday.
Police have also distributed a photo of the alleged gunman.
Eight suspected members of Islamic State, also known as Isis, have been detained in raids in Istanbul.
The culprit, not among the eight held, is believed to be in his mid-20s and of central Asian or Uyghur descent, though investigators have released scant details of how the manhunt is unfolding.
The man is reported to have taken a taxi from the Zeytinburnu district in south Istanbul to Reina nightclub, which is on the shores of the Bosphorus strait.
Upon shooting his way into the club, he first targeted crowds in an upper level before moving downstairs and then to the kitchen area, where he changed his clothes before running out into the street and hailing a taxi that drove north along the Bosphorus shoreline.
Officials said he may be from the same cell responsible for a gun-and-bomb attack on Istanbul’s main airport in June, in which 45 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
The attack at Reina, popular with Turkish celebrities and wealthy visitors, shook Turkey as it tries to recover from a failed July coup and a series of deadly bombings in Istanbul and elsewhere, some blamed on Islamic State, others claimed by Kurdish militants.
Deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus said that terrorists continue to be bent on creating instability in Turkey.
“Wherever they may hide in 2017, we will enter their lair . . . With the will of God, with the support of our people, with all our national capacity, we will bring them to their knees and give them all the necessary response,” he told journalists in Ankara on Monday.
Some experts who have seen footage of the attack say the assailant moved and shot at his victims in the manner of a professional or someone with combat experience.
Though Islamic State is suspected of carrying out numerous attacks on Kurdish and tourist targets in Turkey, the nightclub shooting is only the second for which it has openly claimed responsibility.
“A heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday,” read a statement released by the extremist group.
Meanwhile, stories of what unfolded at the club have begun to emerge.
“I saw people fall near the bar. After we saw that he [the shooter] was raking the people by the bar, around 50 people returned and entered the restrooms. After the restroom was filled up I locked us in. We stayed in there for around an hour,” said a witness identified by Turkish media as Metin G.
A further 65 people were injured in the attack that killed 21 revellers from Middle Eastern countries, many of whom were visiting Istanbul as tourists.
Mr Kurtulmus said he believed the attack was in response to a military operation launched last August against Islamic State positions in northern Syria, where hundreds of Turkish ground forces backed by air strikes have been steadily regaining territory north of Aleppo.
Turkey’s trouble with extremists, however, has regularly appeared much closer to home.
The nightclub killer is believed to have set out on his journey from an area with large central Asian communities and where Islamic State activities involving members of the ethnic Uyghur community have been reported in recent years.
Several neighbourhoods in Istanbul’s European side that are home to migrant communities have become known hotbeds for Islamic State recruiters and jihadists travelling between Syria and Iraq and central Asia.
Police say that raids in districts such as Zeytinburnu and others close to Ataturk airport have prevented many terrorist attacks.
However, at a bus terminal and ferry station, just 2km from the nightclub and which transports thousands of commuters between the city’s European and Asian districts, no additional security was apparent following the New Year’s Eve attack.
Checkpoints or other measures that may help to identify the killer were also absent at the Besiktas ferry port.
Additional reporting: Reuters