|© Osman Orsal/Reuters. A boy cries at the funeral of an attack victim.|
ISTANBUL — Leanne Nasser was a bright-eyed Arab Israeli teenager, in Istanbul with friends for New Year’s, despite her father’s concerns about safety. Fatih Cakmak, who survived a bomb attack only weeks ago, was hired to work security for a popular nightclub.
Both were among those who died early Sunday when a gunman, brandishing an assault rifle, stormed Istanbul’s famed Reina club on the banks of the Bosporus, gunning down unsuspecting New Year’s revelers in a rampage that was one of the city’s worst mass killings in recent memory.
The assailant remained at large Sunday night, and unidentified except for blurred glimpses of him in security camera footage that showed gunshots sparking off the pavement and victims crumpling to the ground. Thirty-nine people were killed, many of them foreigners, in the latest in a string of assaults that have roiled Turkey as it battles insurgents at home and across the border in war-torn Syria. At least 70 people were wounded.
Among the victims of Sunday’s attack, in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district, were an Iraqi student, a Turkish police officer and two Lebanese fitness trainers. Authorities were working Sunday to identify the dead; citizens of at least eight countries, including Turkey, were killed in the assault.
“Please answer my comment, and tell me you have not died,” one Facebook user, Sheery Rudan, posted on the profile photo of 22-year-old Mustafa Jalal, an Iraqi student from Kirkuk. The school in Istanbul where he studied, Kemburgaz University, announced his death on Twitter.
Hassan Alaa, who was close to Jalal, struggled with the news of his boyhood friend’s death. Jalal, an only child, was active, outgoing, and loved cars and swimming, he said.
“I can’t believe this. We would have breakfast together every day,” Alaa said when reached in the Iraqi city of Irbil. “And now he’s gone. Before he left for the club, he wished me a happy birthday and we were joking around.”
The assault, which targeted a posh, sprawling venue popular with Istanbul’s elite, recalled similar attacks on a concert hall in Paris in 2015 and a nightclub in Orlando in 2016. And like those attacks — with a disproportionate tally of young victims, all of whom had been enjoying a night out — the carnage on the Bosporus left Istanbul reeling from a similar sense of shock and grief.
In Paris and Orlando, assault rifles were used to target largely cosmopolitan and international crowds. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for those attacks. The extremist group has carried out attacks in Turkey in recent years, but there was no claim of responsibility for the massacre early Sunday.
It began just after 1 a.m., when the assailant shot dead a 22-year-old police officer, Burak Yildiz, and a chauffeur for a tourism company, Ayhan Arik, on the street outside the club, according to Turkish media reports. The sound of gunshots sent panicked patrons scrambling for cover at the waterside as the gunman came inside, witnesses said.
One patron, professional soccer player Sefa Boydas, described on Twitter the chaos at the club. In a series of posts that were later deleted, Boydas said he did not see who was shooting, but he noted that police arrived on the scene quickly. He carried his girlfriend, who was wearing high heels, he said, out of the club to safety.
“At first we thought some men were fighting with each other,” a Lebanese woman who gave her name as Hadeel told the Reuters news agency. She was in the club with her husband and a friend.
“We heard the guy screaming Allahu akbar,” she said, Arabic for “God is great.”
“We heard his footsteps crushing the broken glass,” she said. “We got out through the kitchen. There was blood everywhere and bodies.”
Others did not survive.
Mustafa Sezgin Seymen, 32, was at Reina with his fiancee, Sezen Arseven. She was wounded; Seymen, a native of the Black Sea city of Trabzon, was killed.
“I’m returning without you from the place we went together,” Arseven wrote of Seymen in a public Facebook post on Sunday.
“I have lost my spouse, my life partner, my most beloved,” she wrote.
Officials on Sunday called the nightclub attack a “massacre” and an act of terrorism. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was meant to “trigger chaos.”
We “will never give passage to these dirty games,” Erdogan said in a statement posted on the presidential website.
It was the fourth major attack in Turkey in less than a month, including the high-profile assassination of the Russian ambassador by a Turkish policeman, and a car bomb assault against riot police at a soccer stadium in Istanbul. That attack, which killed 44 policemen, was claimed by separatist Kurdish militants, who have waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
The attacks have posed a severe challenge to Erdogan’s government, which has appeared to lurch from crisis to crisis since the authorities put down an attempted coup in July. The state’s resources have been stretched thin as it tries to respond to the cascading calamities. After the coup, the government launched a crackdown on its perceived enemies, arresting thousands of people. At the same time, Turkey has deepened its involvement in the Syrian war while escalating its confrontation with Kurdish groups.
Cakmak, the security guard, was working at the stadium when the car bomb detonated on Dec. 11, Turkish media reported.
“They killed my brother. He died for nothing,” Erhan Cakmak said outside the central morgue Sunday in Istanbul, in a video circulated by the private Dogan News Agency.
Fatih Cakmak’s Facebook profile photo shows him with the renowned French soccer player and Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane.
Relatives and friends of one of the Lebanese victims, Haykal Moussalem, a 35-year-old fitness trainer, arrived at the morgue Sunday saying they had not been able to locate him.
Lebanon’s consul general in Istanbul later confirmed that Moussalem had been killed, along with at least two other young Lebanese citizens, Elias Wardini and Rita Chami, according to a statement on the site of the country’s national news agency.
Pictures on social media showed Moussalem, newly married, on a trip to Italy with his wife, and supervising training sessions in a gym. Another picture that circulated showed Wardini and Chami smiling in the sleet on an Istanbul street.
In Israel, the father of Leanne Nasser, speaking to local media, said he implored his 19-year-old daughter not to travel to Istanbul because of recent attacks. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said one of her friends, 18-year-old Ruaa Mansour, was injured in the attack.
Late Sunday, the French Foreign Ministry said a Franco-Tunisian woman and her Tunisian husband had been killed in the attack. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry said three of its nationals were also confirmed dead.
According to Turkey's state-run news agency, Anadolu, nearly two-thirds of the victims were foreigners.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday warned U.S. citizens in Istanbul to limit movements “to an absolute minimum” while the search for the assailant continues.
“He was one of the kindest people I knew. He would never hold a grudge,” Alaa said of Jalal, the Iraqi student.
“He loved his life [in Istanbul],” he said. “He enjoyed everything in it and wanted to stay for good.”
American among injured in Istanbul nightclub terror attack; gunman still at large
At least one U.S. citizen was injured during a deadly attack on an Istanbul nightclub -- and the terrorist responsible for the massacre remained at large Sunday evening.
At least 39 people were killed and nearly 70 were wounded when a gunman opened fire shortly after a nightclub crowd had celebrated ringing in the New Year.
"Unfortunately (he) rained bullets in a very cruel and merciless way on innocent people who were there to celebrate New Year's and have fun," Gov. Vasip Sahin told reporters.
The attacker, armed with a long-barreled weapon, killed a policeman and a civilian outside the popular Reina club at around 1:15 a.m. before entering and firing on people partying inside.
Nearly two-thirds, or 24 of the people killed were foreign visitors, many from the Middle East, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. Countries from India to Belgium reported their citizens among the casualties. Close to 70 others were injured.
An estimated 600 people were celebrating inside the club that is often frequented by famous locals, including singers, actors and sports stars. Several shocked revelers were seen fleeing the scene after the attack and the music fell silent.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for what authorities immediately called a terrorist attack. Turkish officials did not comment on the possible identity or motives of the assailant.
The mass shooting follows more than 30 violent acts that rocked Turkey -- a member of the NATO alliance and a partner in the U.S.-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) group in Syria and Iraq -- in the span of year.
The country endured multiple bombing attacks in 2016, including three in Istanbul alone which authorities blamed on ISIS, a failed coup attempt in July and renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vehemently condemned "the terror attack in Istanbul's Ortakoy neighborhood in the first hours of 2017" and offered condolences for those who lost their lives, including the "foreign guests."
Among them were an 18-year-old Israeli woman; three Indian citizens; three Lebanese; a woman with dual French-Tunisian citizenship and her Tunisian husband; three Jordanians; and a Belgian national, according to the countries' respective foreign ministries.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the gunman, who has not been identified, remains at large. "Our security forces have started the necessary operations. God willing, he will be caught in a short period of time," Soylu said.
Private NTV news channel said the assailant entered the upscale nightclub, on the shores of the Bosporus strait, on the European side of the city, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit -- a claim Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denied.
Security camera footage obtained by The Associated Press from Haberturk newspaper shows what appears to be a male assailant dressed in black and carrying a backpack as he shoots down a police officer outside the nightclub.
Footage taken by a different camera inside Reina shows a figure wearing different clothes and what could be a Santa Claus hat. The prime minister denied that the gunman wore a Santa outfit.
Yildirim said the attacker left a gun at the venue and escaped by "taking advantage of the chaos" that ensued. Some customers reportedly jumped into the waters of the Bosporus to escape the attack.
Mehmet Dag, 22, was passing by the club and saw the suspect shoot at a police officer and a bystander. He said the suspect then targeted security guards, gunning them down and entering the club.
"Once he went in, we don't know what happened. There were gun sounds, and after two minutes the sound of an explosion," Dag said.
Turkish media said the local victims include a 22-year-old police officer and a 47-year-old travel agent, both of whom were shot outside the club.
One was given a funeral ceremony Sunday in Istanbul where his two sons joined the mourners gathered around the flag-draped casket, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Ayhan Arik, a tourism company employee who had brought foreign guests to the nightclub, was shot in the head, the news agency said.
The nightclub area remained sealed off on Sunday.
Heavily armed police blocked the snowy street in front of the nightclub where the entrance was covered with blue plastic sheeting below a Turkish flag. Police patrolled the Asian side of the Bosporus on the other side of the club.
Crime scene investigators were seen inside Reina searching through mingled piles of chairs, tables and pieces of clothing left behind during the panic among the guests.
And there were emotional scenes in front of a city morgue where the dead were brought for identification. Some relatives cried out and fell to the ground as they apparently learned the fate of their loved ones.
The U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul on Sunday warned American citizens to keep their movements in the city "to an absolute minimum."
A statement reminded U.S. citizens that extremists "are continuing aggressive efforts to conduct attacks in areas where U.S. citizens and expatriates reside or frequent."
The United States also denied reports in Turkish news outlets and on social media that its security agencies knew in advance that the nightclub in Istanbul was at risk of a terror attack.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara said in a statement that "contrary to rumors circulating in social media, the U.S. Government had no information about threats to specific entertainment venues, including the Reina Club."
Turkey faces a wide spectrum of security threats.
ISIS claims to have cells in the country. Analysts think it was behind suicide bombings in January and March that targeted tourists on Istanbul's iconic Istiklal Street, as well as a high-casualty suicide bomb and gun attack at Ataturk Airport in June.
In December, ISIS released a video purportedly showing the killing of two Turkish soldiers and urged its supporters to "conquer" Istanbul. Turkey's jets regularly bomb the group in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab. Turkish authorities have not confirmed the authenticity of the video.
Turkey's violent 2016 also reflects the intensification of an armed conflict between the state and Kurdish rebels. Turkey-based Kurdish groups have claimed multiple suicide attacks. Ankara has said Kurdish affiliates in Syria and Iraq share responsibility.
Complicating matters, the country endured a coup attempt on July 15, blamed by Ankara on a U.S-based Islamist cleric. A state of emergency has been in force since then, and authorities have purged key institutions, including the army and police.
The consecutive calamities have left the nation on edge and kept tourists at bay. In Istanbul, a bustling city bridging Europe and Asia, the toll on the economy is evidenced in the closure of iconic restaurants and lowered hotel prices.
The nightclub attack drew quick condemnation from the West and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his Turkish counterpart a telegram of condolences, saying "it is hard to imagine a more cynical crime than killing innocent people during New Year celebrations."
"However, terrorists don't share moral values. Our common duty is to combat terrorists' aggression," Putin said.
The White House condemned what it called a "horrific terrorist attack" and offered U.S. help to Turkey.
Prime Minister Yildirim vowed to keep fighting terror organizations, but noted that, "The terror that happens here today may happen in another country in the world tomorrow."
Istanbul nightclub attack: Manhunt underway for shooter
A manhunt is underway in Turkey for an unknown attacker who opened fire on New Year's revelers in an Istanbul nightclub.
At least 39 clubgoers were killed and nearly 70 were hospitalized after the suspect entered the Reina nightclub early Sunday and started shooting. The victims hailed from 14 countries, according to Turkey's semi-official news agency Anadolu.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said he believes the attacker will be found soon.
"There is strong coordination and we will find him, no delay," he told reporters gathered outside an Istanbul hospital, where Yildirim had been visiting people injured in the attack.
Despite no group yet claiming responsibility, Turkish authorities quickly characterized the attack as the work of terrorists.
"We are face to face with a terror attack," Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters Sunday morning, adding, "the efforts to locate the terrorist are ongoing. Security forces have begun the necessary operations. God willing soon (the attacker) will be apprehended."
US officials also called it a terrorist attack, making it the first of 2017.
- The death toll from the Reina nightclub shooting stands at 39
- 69, including one American, are reported injured; "four of them are in critical condition -- one very critical," says Interior Minister
- No claim of responsibility has yet been made
- US, Turkish officials say incident is a terrorist attack
- Pope Francis condemns attack during Angelus address
- Turkey's PM believes attacker will be found soon
- US not aware of any Americans among fatalities
'At first we thought it was a fight'
Witnesses said an evening that was supposed to celebrate the new year became a bloodbath instead.
"We were having fun. At first we thought it was a fight, then there was a lot of gunfire," eyewitness Yunis Turk told CNN after police secured the nightclub in the Ortakoy neighborhood.
"After the gunfire everyone started to run toward the terrace. We ran as well. There was someone next to me who was shot and fell on the floor. We ran away and hid under the sofas."
Some people jumped into the Bosphorus strait, he said, a testament to the panic that engulfed the nightspot.
Temperatures were near freezing in Istanbul and yet people were willing to leap into the frigid waters to escape.
"For 10 minutes there was gunfire and then for another five minutes they were throwing bombs, fired a bit more, then left," Turk recalled.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN sister network CNN Turk that the attacker is a lone assailant and that the authorities "are trying hard" to identify and apprehend the person in order to investigate any ties to terror groups.
He said security forces are analyzing CCTV footage.
"I hope we will shortly identify the attacker and find who is behind it," he said.
Leaders express condolences
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan released a statement via Anadolu, offering his condolences to the families of the victims.
In the statement, he said those who attack the "serenity" of Turkey were trying to sow chaos but that the nation would not allow "this dirty game," and instead would unite and remain calm.
Pope Francis condemned the attack during his Angelus address in St. Peter's Square on Sunday. According to a statement released on behalf of the Vatican Press Office, the pontiff said the incident left him "deeply saddened."
"I express my closeness to the Turkish people," he said. "I pray for the many victims and the injured and for the whole nation in mourning, and I ask the Lord to support all people of good will who courageously roll up their sleeves to face the plague of terrorism and the bloody stain that envelops the world with a shadow of fear and bewilderment."
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to Erdogan after the attack in Istanbul and said, "Our common duty is to respond decisively to the terrorist aggression," according to a statement released by the Kremlin.
Putin also said Russia was and would remain Turkey's ally in the fight against "this evil."
The White House announced that President Barack Obama's national security team had briefed him in Hawaii, where he is vacationing.
"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," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.
The UN Security Council condemned "the heinous and barbaric terrorist attack."
"The members of the Security Council reaffirmed that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security," the statement said.
Security Council members "underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice," according to the statement.
So far, 39 of those killed have been identified -- 24 men and 15 women, said Ali Seker, a parliament member in Istanbul, according to Anadolu. Of those, 24 were foreign nationals and 11 were Turks, Seker said.
The victims hailed from 14 countries, including India, Morocco, Jordan, Canada, Russia and Kuwait, according to reporting from Anadolu.
Among the dead are a policeman, a waiter and a private security employee, he told Anadolu.
Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said one of the fatalities was a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the town of Tira. She was identified as Leanne Nasser, according to ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Two Jordanians were killed and four others injured, according to the Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The brother of a Lebanese woman named Rita Chami confirmed her death for Lebanon's National News Agency.
Tunisia's Foreign Ministry, in a statement posted on its Facebook page, said two Tunisian nationals died in the attack.
Two people from India were killed, according to the Twitter account of Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. He identified them as Kushi Shah and Abis Rizvi.
The Saudi consulate in Istanbul confirmed that a number of the victims were Saudis, but didn't say how many were injured or if any were killed.
Belgium's Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that one victim had dual Belgian-Turkish citizenship.
State Department spokesman Michael Tran confirmed that an American had been injured but he said he could not provide any details on the person, including their age, sex or condition.
'Crazy people shooting everything'
Around 1:15 a.m. Sunday, the gunman shot a police officer who was guarding the front gate at the Reina nightclub, killing him, Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said.
"He entered the club and attacked innocent people who were there to celebrate the new year. It was a cruel, coldblooded act," the governor said.