Minister of Health Recep Akdağ announced on Sunday that there are many foreign nationals among 69 wounded in an armed attack on a popular nightclub in the early hours of New Year’s Day in the Ortaköy district of İstanbul.
As the police hunt for the assailant, who managed to escape after the attack, which claimed lives of at least 39 people including 24 foreigners, officials are trying to identify all the victims.
Although eyewitnesses mentioned multiple gunmen inside the Reina nightclub, officials issued statements regarding only one assailant, who was still at large as of Sunday noon Turkish time.
Emerging eyewitnesses also reported on Sunday that the gunman spoke in Arabic and wore a Santa Claus costume. Minister of Interior Affairs Süleyman Soylu said the assailant apparently entered the club in regular clothing but might have tried to escape in a different outfit, adding that this information has yet to be confirmed.
According to İstanbul Governor Vasip Şahin, “This was a terror attack, and at least 35 people were killed in the armed attack carried out by one assailant.” Şahin told reporters at the scene shortly after the incident that “a terrorist with a long-range weapon … brutally and savagely carried out this incident by firing bullets on innocent people who were there solely to celebrate the New Year and have fun.”
Local news station NTV said police were still searching for the attackers, but according to a later report from the Guardian, “Government officials have said there was one attacker and that he has been killed. Our reporter says police can be seen leaving the scene now, and emergency services activity is beginning to subside, which might suggest the immediate threat is over.” Al Jazeera reported that another suspect is believed to have fled the scene.
Mehmet Kocarslan, the owner of the club, told a Hürriyet reporter that assailants attacked the club with AK47s. He also said that due to “American intelligence,” Turkish security units had been taking measures for the last 10 days around the club. İstanbul had been on high alert, with some 17,000 police officers on duty, following a series of terrorist attacks in the city in recent months.
An eyewitness told Hürriyet that a person dressed as Santa Claus killed a police officer in front of the club before carrying out the attack, and a journalist shared a photo on Twitter of a man who was slain in front of the nightclub.
DHA reported that two terrorists attacked at around 1:30 a.m. local time, when there were 700 to 800 people in the club, some of whom are said to have jumped into the Bosporus to escape. Several eyewitnesses claimed the attackers spoke in Arabic. An injured person at Şişli Hamidiye Etfal Hospital said, “Three to four men attacked with automatic rifles and shot victims in the head.”
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a statement saying that a gag order has been imposed on news about the attack.
The state-run Anadolu news agency reported that according to government sources, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had expressed deep sadness over the attack and was receiving updates from Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Governor Şahin on the casualties as well as the details of the terrorist act.
Federica Mogherini, the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, tweeted: “2017 starts with an attack in #Istanbul. Our thoughts are with victims and their loved ones. We continue to work to prevent these tragedies.”
US President Barack Obama late on Saturday conveyed his condolences for the attack and offered help to Turkish authorities from his team, according to the White House.
“This afternoon the president was briefed by his national security team on the attack in Istanbul,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.
“The president expressed condolences for the innocent lives lost, directed his team to offer appropriate assistance to the Turkish authorities, as necessary, and keep him updated as warranted.”
The US State Department also strongly condemned the attack. Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner in a statement conveyed condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and to the people of Turkey and said: “We stand in solidarity with our Nato ally Turkey in combating the ongoing threat of terrorism. Sadly, this heinous attack is only the latest effort to kill and maim innocent civilians. These attacks only reinforce our determination to work with the government of Turkey to counter the scourge of terrorism.”