A manhunt was underway in Istanbul after at least one attacker, reportedly dressed as Santa Claus, opened fire at visitors of the high-end Reina nightclub. Hundreds of people were in the building at the moment of the attack, which started less then one hour after Turkey rang in the new year.
At least 39 people were killed and 69 were in hospital, officials said early on Sunday.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu confirmed the attacker was still at large in televised remarks: “The search for the terrorist continues… I hope [the assailant] will be captured quickly, God willing.”
The authorities managed to identify 21 victims, at least 15 of whom are foreigners, Soylu added.
Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin described the incident as a terror attack, adding, “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.” Sahin did not say what group might have been involved.
One witness told the Associated Press she saw bodies in the nightclub following the attack. “Before I could understand what was happening, my husband fell on top me,” said the witness outside Istanbul’s Sisli hospital. “I had to lift several bodies from on top of me before I could get out.” The witness’ husband was not in serious condition.
Broadcaster CNN Türk and German press agency dpa said the attack was carried out by at least two attackers who were wearing Santa Claus outfits who opened fire with automatic weapons.
“Just as we were settling down, by the door there was a lot of dust and smoke. Gunshots rang out,” he told the AFP news agency. “When those sounds were heard, many girls fainted,” he added.
“They say 35 to 40 died but it’s probably more because when I was walking, people were walking on top of people.”
Dogan said there were at least 700 visitors gathered in the high-end club in the Ortakoy district.
Local reports showed ambulances and police vehicles on the street outside the club, as well as men wearing suits and women in cocktail dresses leaving the building.
Security was high in Istanbul following a year filled with violent attacks by the so-called Islamic State (IS) or Kurdish groups that killed more than 180 people. At least 17,000 police officers were on duty for New Year’s celebrations in Turkey’s largest city, some under cover as street vendors or Santa Claus.
Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag tweeted “this is a cowardly and cruel terrorist attack against our Turkey, our peace, our unity, our brotherhood and all of us.”
Turkey is one the key US allies in NATO and is currently involved into the conflict in Syria, in addition to fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its own soil. During 2016, the dominantly Muslim Turkey has been hit by several deadly terror attacks. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed his condolences in a tweet following the latest massacre.