Turkey arrests two Uighurs over nightclub attack

Charges relate to unlicensed firearms, being accomplices in the killing

ISTANBUL • Turkey has arrested two Chinese nationals of Uighur origin in connection with a mass shooting in a nightclub in Istanbul in the early hours of the new year, media reports said.

The attack was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The suspects, named as Omar Asim and Abuliezi Abuduhamiti, were arrested on charges of "being members of a terrorist organisation", of "purchasing unlicensed firearms" and "being accomplices to the murder of 39 people", the state-run Anadolu Agency cited a prosecutor as saying.

A witness in the central Anatolian city of Konya had reportedly seen Asim with the Reina nightclub attacker, the agency said late last Friday. The gunman remains at large despite a massive manhunt.

Officials said last week that the attacker was likely a Turkic Uighur, with the authorities reportedly looking into the possible existence of a cell, including other militants from Central Asia.

Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims from the restive Xinjiang region of far-western China.

The killer, reportedly known by the code name Ebu Muhammed Horasani, slipped into the night after mowing down 39 revellers at the Reina nightclub just 75 minutes into 2017.

At least 35 people have been detained so far in connection with the attack, according to Anadolu.

Of the 39 killed in the glamorous nightclub on the shores of the Bosphorus, 27 were foreigners, including citizens of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Morocco.

ISIS claimed the nightclub massacre, the first time it has ever clearly claimed a major attack in Turkey despite being blamed for several strikes, including the Istanbul airport bombings.

The terror attacks have eroded the backbone of Turkey's key tourism sector, with the number of foreign tourists visiting Istanbul down to 9.2 million last year, a 26 per cent decline on the previous year's figure, tourism ministry statistics show. The biggest number were Europeans, with 3.9 million of them descending on the vibrant metropolis, followed by 2.3 million tourists from the Middle East.

"In foreign currency terms, revenues amounted to US$31.6 billion (S$45 billion) in 2015, and we had a fall of almost US$10 billion in 2016," said Mr Cetin Gurcun, secretary-general of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies.

Security measures have been heightened in the wake of the attacks, with heavily armed police patrolling streets.

Tourist guide Umran Aslan said it helped make her feel safer: "They're trying to protect us. I feel better when I see police everywhere." But she admitted it was unlikely to reassure tourists. "It's so sad, because I love my job".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Turkey arrests two Uighurs over nightclub attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe