Gunman on the run as Istanbul nightclub attack kills 39, injures 65 in New Year carnage

As police launched a dragnet for the assailant, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the carnage sought to sow chaos and undermine peace, but Turkey would never bow to the threat.

The assailant opened fire at a crowded nightclub in Istanbul during New Year’s celebrations, killing dozens of people and wounding tens of others. Haberturk Gazetesi Yildirim Ekspresi via AP
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Istanbul // Turkish launched a manhunt on Sunday for the gunman who killed 39 people, including many foreigners, in a rampage at an upmarket nightclub in Istanbul where patrons were celebrating the New Year.

The shooting spree at the riverside Reina nightclub was unleashed when 2017 in Turkey was just 75 minutes old, after a year of unprecedented bloodshed that saw hundreds of people die in strikes blamed on extremists and Kurdish militants and in a bloody failed coup.

The attacker shot dead a policeman and a civilian at the club entrance and then turned his gun on partygoers inside where up to 700 people were bringing in the New Year.

Many revellers threw themselves into the freezing waters of the Bosphorus in panic.

Prime minister Binali Yildirim said the gunman was still at large after slipping away unnoticed after the attack. But he denied earlier reports the person had used a Santa Claus costume as disguise.

The assailant “left the gun and went away from the scene of the incident,” he said. “It was an armed terrorist.”

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bloodshed.

Interior minister Suleyman Soylu said five of the 20 victims identified so far were Turks, and the rest were foreigners. Another 65 people were being treated in hospital.

There were a number of Arabs among the dead and wounded, including Saudis, Jordanians and Tunisians.

Mr Soylu said the gunman had arrived with a gun concealed underneath an overcoat but left the venue wearing a different garment.

He described the attack as a “massacre, a truly inhumane savagery”.

“Our security forces have started the necessary operations. God willing, he will be caught in a short period of time,” he said.

Security camera footage obtained by the Haberturk newspaper showed the male assailant dressed in black and carrying a backpack as he shot the police officer outside the nightclub. Footage from inside the club shows him wearing different clothes and a what appears to be a Santa Claus hat.

The attack evoked memories of the November 2015 carnage in Paris when ISIL extremists went on a shooting and bombing spree targeting nightspots in the French capital, killing 130 people including 90 at the Bataclan concert hall.

Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin said the attacker “targeted innocent people who had only come here to celebrate the New Year and have fun”.

Television pictures showed partygoers – including men in suits and women in cocktail dresses – emerging from the nightclub in a state of shock.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the attack sought to sow chaos and undermine peace, but vowed that Turkey would never bow to the threat.

He said Turkey would deploy every means to fight “terror organisations” and the countries supporting them, without elaborating.

With such attacks, “they are working to destroy our country’s morale and create chaos”, he said.

From Sydney to Paris, Rio to London, security had been boosted over fears that the New Year festivities could be a target for extremists.

In Istanbul, at least 17,000 police officers had been deployed and some, as is customary in Turkey, dressed themselves as Santa Claus as cover, according to television reports.

Turkey in 2016 saw more attacks than any other year in its history. On December 10, 44 people were killed in a double bombing in Istanbul after a football match hosted by top side Besiktas. That attack was claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, seen as a radical offshoot of the outlawed PKK rebel group.

In June, 47 people were killed in a triple suicide bombing and gun attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport that the authorities blamed on ISIL.

Turkey has been waging a war against Kurdish militants in the country after a ceasefire collapsed in 2015, and in August last year launched an incursion into Syria to drive ISIL and Syrian Kurdish militias away from its border.

The country is still reeling from a failed coup in July in which more than 300 people died. The government blamed the coup attempt on the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen and launched a purge of his alleged supporters from state institutions.

Turkey is also spearheading a ceasefire plan with Russia aimed at creating a basis for peace talks to end the civil war in neighbouring Syria. While Turkey has backed rebels fighting to depose Syrian president Bashar Al Assad during the nearly six-year conflict, Russia’s military intervention in late 2015 has helped turned the tide in Mr Al Assad’s favour.

Two weeks ago, an off-duty policeman shot dead Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in an Ankara art gallery and then shouted slogans suggesting the assassination was linked to the war in Syria.

Russian president Vladimir Putin sent a condolence message to Mr Erdogan after the New Year attack, saying, “It’s hard to imagine a crime more cynical than the killing of civilians during a New Year’s celebration.”

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press