ISTANBUL • The Turkish authorities were yesterday hunting for a lone gunman who opened fire during New Year celebrations at one of Istanbul's most popular nightclubs, killing 39 people and wounding another 70.
The shooting at the waterside Reina nightclub was the latest in a string of attacks that have shaken Turkey as it faces an array of threats both at home and as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria. But it was the only terror incident in an otherwise jittery festive period which had the authorities worldwide on high alert.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the attack, which began with a spray of gunfire at around 1am, was carried out by a single assailant, who has not been identified.
Some reports, however, suggested that there may have been more than one gunman. No one has yet claimed responsibility.
Dogan news agency said the gunman was dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, although this has yet to be confirmed.
Mr Soylu said the gunman arrived with a gun concealed beneath an overcoat, but subsequently left the venue wearing a different garment.
The authorities have identified 21 of the victims, Mr Soylu said, adding that at least 15 or 16 of those killed were foreigners. Another five victims were Turkish citizens, including nightclub employees, he said.
Nationals of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, Israel, India and Belgium were among those killed, officials said. France said three of its citizens were wounded.
The assault began when the gunman shot and killed a police officer who was guarding the door, said Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin.
After killing the policeman, the gunman "brutally and violently attacked innocent people who came here to enjoy themselves", Mr Sahin said. Up to 700 people were in the club ringing in the new year.
Patrons reportedly jumped into the waters of the Bosphorus - which separates Europe and Asia - to escape the gunfire. Dozens of ambulances could be heard heading in the direction of the club, in Istanbul's Ortakoy district. Security forces later stormed the nightclub.
"They are working to destroy our country's morale and create chaos by deliberately targeting our nation's peace and targeting civilians with these heinous attacks," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement.
"We will retain our cool-headedness as a nation, standing more closely together, and we will never give ground to such dirty games."
The Turkish authorities issued a temporary gag order on reporting from the scene of the nightclub. The order also barred media outlets from publishing any information on potential suspects, unless released through official statements.
The United States and France voiced outrage at the attack and said they stood alongside their Nato ally in its fight against terror.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned "an inhumane, sneaky attack on people who wanted to celebrate", while Pope Francis condemned the shooting in his New Year message. Russian President Vladimir Putin also conveyed his condolences to Mr Erdogan.
Fears that New Year's Eve festivities could present a target for violent extremists had prompted the authorities to boost security from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta to London. Only days ago, an online message from a pro-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, Nashir Media Foundation, called for attacks by "lone wolves" on "celebrations, gatherings and clubs".
The worst fears were realised in Germany on Dec 19, when an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin killed 12 people.
In Indonesia, police were on high alert following a Christmas Day shoot-out that left two militants dead and led to the arrest of two others. That came just days after three suspected militants, said to be planning an attack on a police post in Jakarta on Christmas Eve, were killed in a raid.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, XINHUA
Victims being rushed to hospital after the attack. http://str.sg/4PpH