Turkish police are hunting for an assailant who — reportedly dressed as Santa Claus — opened fire at a crowded Istanbul nightclub during New Year's celebrations on Saturday night, killing at least 39 people and wounding close to 70 others in what authorities said was a terror attack.
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Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Sunday that of the victims identified so far 15 were foreign nationals. Israel's Foreign Ministry confirmed that an Israeli woman was among the dead and that another woman was wounded. Other foreign victims include citizens of Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya and Lebanon, Turkey's minister of family and social policies said.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the attacker, who has not been identified, was still at large. "Our security forces have started the necessary operations. God willing he will be caught in a short period of time," he said.
The attacker, reportedly dressed as Santa Claus, shot his way into the Reina nightclub at around 1:15 a.m. (2215 GMT), just over an hour into the new year, killing a police officer and a civilian as he entered before opening fire at random inside.
The club is a popular hangout for young, secular elites and foreigners, and is considered one of the most exclusive in the city. It overlooks the Bosphorus Strait separating Europe and Asia in the city's cosmopolitan Ortakoy district, and some of the wealthier patrons arrive in yachts to enjoy its several restaurants and dancefloors.
Around 500 to 600 people were thought to have been inside when the gunman opened fire, broadcaster CNN Turk said. Some jumped into the waters of the Bosphorus to save themselves and were rescued by police.
Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said the attacker had used a "long-range weapon" to "brutally and savagely" fire on people, apparently referring to some sort of assault rifle. The nightclub owner, Mehmet Kocarslan, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that the attacker was using "Kalashnikovs," the Guardian reported.
Sahin and Soylu both referred to a single attacker but other reports, including on social media, suggested there may have been more, at least one of them wearing a Santa Claus costume which he later ditched in order to escape.
The Hurriyet newspaper cited witnesses as saying there were multiple attackers and that they shouted in Arabic.
"We were having fun. All of a sudden people started to run. My husband said don't be afraid, and he jumped on me. People ran over me. My husband was hit in three places," one club-goer, Sinem Uyanik, told the newspaper.
"I managed to push through and get out, it was terrible," she said, describing seeing people soaked in blood and adding that there appeared to have been at least two gunmen.
Ankara and Istanbul have been targeted by several attacks in 2016 carried out by the Islamic State group or Kurdish rebels, killing more than 180 people.
On Dec. 10, a double bomb attack outside a soccer stadium near the Reina nightclub killed 44 people and wounded 149 others. The attack was claimed by Turkey-based Kurdish militant group, the Kurdish Freedom Falcons. Nine days later, an off-duty Turkish riot policeman assassinated Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov at a photo exhibition in the capital, Ankara. The government has suggested that a movement led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the killing — an accusation the cleric has denied.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag vowed that Turkey would press ahead with its fight against violent groups.
"Turkey will continue its determined and effective combat to root out terror," Bozdag said on Twitter.
Security measures had been heightened in major Turkish cities, with police barring traffic leading up to key squares in Istanbul and the capital Ankara. In Istanbul, 17,000 police officers were put on duty, some camouflaged as Santa Clause and others as street vendors, Anadolu reported.