An assailant believed to have been dressed in a Santa Claus costume opened fire at a nightclub in Istanbul during New Year’s celebrations Saturday, killing at least 39 people and wounding 40 others in what the city’s governor described as a terror attack.
At least 16 foreigners were among the casualties, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu said on Sunday. In televised comments, he said that of 21 victims who have been identified so far, 16 are foreigners and five are Turks. Another 69 people are being treated in hospital for their wounds.
Indicating that the attacker was still at large, Soylu said: “The search for the terrorist continues... I hope (the assailant) will be captured quickly, God willing.”
Governor Vasip Sahin earlier said the attacker, armed with a long-barreled weapon, killed a policeman and a civilian outside the club before entering and firing on people partying inside. He did not say who may have carried out what he called a “terror attack.”
“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,” Sahin told reporters at the scene of the nightclub on the Bosphorus in the city’s European side.
“What happened today is a terror attack,” he added.
Media reports said the assailant entered the popular Reina nightclub, in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district, at 1:45 am, dressed in a Santa Claus costume. There were more than 500 people inside the club at the time, private NTV television reported.
Some customers jumped into the waters of the Bosporus to escape the attack, the report said.
NTV television said the assailant may still be inside the nightclub.
Dogan news agency reported that some witnesses claimed the attackers were “speaking Arabic”.
Footage from the scene showed at least six ambulances with flashing lights and civilians being escorted out. NTV said police had cordoned off the area and an operation to capture the assailant was ongoing.
The nightclub in the Ortakoy district of Istanbul is one of the most elite spots in the city, and getting inside past the bouncers who seek out only the best dressed is notoriously hard.
Security measures had been heightened in major Turkish cities, with police barring traffic leading up to key squares in Istanbul and the capital Ankara.
‘Tragic start to 2017’
Turkey has been hit by a string of attacks in recent months blamed on Kurdish militants and Islamic State jihadists.
On December 10, 44 people were killed in a double bombing in Istanbul after a football match hosted by top side Besiktas.
That attack, which targeted a police bus, was claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) seen as a radical offshoot of the PKK.
A week later, fourteen Turkish soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in a suicide car bombing blamed on Kurdish militants targeting off-duty conscripts also claimed by the TAK.
“No terror attack will destroy our unity, or eradicate our fraternity or weaken Turkey’s effective fight against terror,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag wrote on Twitter.
The recent spike in violence has capped a bloody 2016 in Turkey which saw more attacks than any other in the history of the country.
In June, 47 people were killed in a triple suicide bombing and gun attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, with authorities blaming IS.
Another 57 people, 34 of them children, were killed in August in a suicide attack by an IS-linked bomber at a Kurdish wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Turkey is still reeling from a failed July 15 coup blamed by the government on the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen that has been followed by a relentless purge of his alleged supporters from state institutions.
“Tragic start to 2017 in Istanbul. My thoughts are with those affected by the attack on people celebrating New Year and with the Turkish people,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.
The White House condemned what it said was an “horrific” attack and its “savagery.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in Istanbul for the New Year, had been informed of the attack, local media said.
The attack also came as the Turkish army is waging a four-month incursion in Syria to oust IS jihadists and Kurdish militants from the border area, taking increasing casualties.
Amid fears of another attack in Istanbul, at least 17,000 police officers were deployed in the city for this year’s New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Some officers, as is customary in Turkey, dressed themselves as Santa Claus as cover, television reports on the deployment ahead of the New Year had showed.
The attack evoked memories of the November 13, 2015 attack in Paris when gunmen stormed a popular concert venue, the Bataclan, sprayed bullets at random, eventually killing 90 people.
After the attack, the US embassy told citizens to avoid the area and contact family members to confirm they were safe.
“Extremist groups are continuing aggressive efforts to conduct attacks in areas where US citizens and expatriates reside or frequent,” it said.
As is customary after such attacks in Turkey, the authorities slapped a broadcast ban on images from the incident.