ISIS claims responsibility for New Year's attack in Turkey, gunman still at large
Witnesses tell harrowing tales of survival after 39 killed in shooting at Reina nightclub
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility on Monday for a New Year's Day mass shooting in a packed Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people, an attack carried out by a lone gunman who remains at large.
It described the Reina nightclub, where many foreigners as well as Turks were killed, as a gathering point for Christians celebrating their "apostate holiday." The attack, it said, was revenge for Turkish military involvement in Syria.
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At a news conference in Ankara, Turkish government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus made no reference to the claim but said it was clear Turkey's military operations in Syria had annoyed terrorist groups and those behind them.
"This attack is a message to Turkey against its decisive operations across the border," Kurtulmus said, adding that the offensive in Syria would continue until all threats to Turkey were removed.
Fingerprints found, 8 people detained
The authorities are close to fully identifying the gunman, Kurtulmus said, after gathering fingerprints and information on his basic appearance, and have detained eight other people.
NATO member Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and launched the incursion into neighbouring Syria in August to drive radical Sunni militants, as well as Kurdish militia fighters, away from its borders.
The jihadist group has been blamed for at least half a dozen attacks on civilian targets in Turkey over the past 18 months; but, other than assassinations, this is the first time it has directly claimed any of them. It made the statement on one of its Telegram channels, a method used after attacks elsewhere.
Nationals of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, Libya, Israel, India, Canada, a Turkish-Belgian dual citizen and a Franco-Tunisian woman were among those killed at the nightclub on the shores of the Bosphorus waterway.
Twenty-five of the dead were foreigners, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. All of those killed died from gunshot wounds, some of them shot at a very close distance or even point-blank range, according to a forensics report quoted by Milliyet newspaper.
The authorities believe the attacker may be from a Central Asian nation and suspect he had links to ISIS, the Hurriyet newspaper said.
It said he may be from the same cell responsible for a gun-and-bomb attack on Istanbul's main airport in June, in which 45 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
'He started firing and he didn't stop'
The attack at Reina, popular with Turkish celebrities and wealthy visitors, shook Turkey as it tries to recover from a failed July coup and a series of deadly bombings, some blamed on ISIS, others claimed by Kurdish militants.
Around 600 people were thought to be inside when the gunman shot dead a policeman and civilian at the door, forcing his way in then opening fire with an automatic assault rifle.
Witnesses said he shouted "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is Greatest."
"As soon as he entered the club, he started firing and he didn't stop. He fired non-stop for 20 minutes at least," said Younis Turk, a French citizen of Turkish origin.
Shot in the arm and slumped behind a table, Francois al-Asmar played dead as the gunman walked through the nightclub shooting the wounded as they lay on the ground.
"He shot one shot, so we thought — I thought — it was some angry or drunk man ... But a few seconds later, we heard a machine-gun," Asmar told Reuters from his hospital bed.
"I was hiding behind the table, sitting on the floor, but my shoulder must have been exposed. He was shooting us on the floor ... I acted dead so he didn't keep shooting me," said the Lebanese radio and TV graduate, who was visiting Istanbul.
Turkey to press forward in Syria
In a statement hours after the shooting, President Tayyip Erdogan said such attacks aimed to create chaos and destabilize the country. Four months into its operation in Syria, the Turkish army and the rebels it backs are besieging the ISIS-held town of al-Bab.
Erdogan has said he wants them to continue to Raqqa, the jihadists' Syrian stronghold. Turkey has also been cracking down on ISIS networks at home. In counter-terrorism operations between Dec. 26-Jan. 2, Turkish police detained 147 people over links to the group and formally arrested 25 of them, the interior ministry said.
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With files from Associated Press