ISTANBUL: The Islamic State jihadist group on Monday claimed the shooting rampage inside a glamorous Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s night that killed 39 people, as police hunted the attacker who remains on the run.
Anti-terror police made their first arrests over the attack, which unleashed scenes of panic among party-goers at one of Istanbul’s swankiest venues and killed mostly foreign tourists.
The shooting took place just 75 minutes into 2017 after a bloody year in Turkey in which hundreds of people were killed in violence blamed on both IS jihadists and Kurdish militants.
In a statement circulated on social media, the jihadist group said one of the “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attack on the Reina nightclub.
It accused Turkey, a majority-Muslim country, of being a servant of Christians, in a possible reference to Ankara’s alliance with the international coalition fighting IS in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
This is the first time IS has issued a clear and undisputed claim for an attack inside Turkey, despite being blamed for several major strikes in Istanbul and other cities over the last year.
It has in the past however claimed individual assassinations of Syrian anti-jihadist activists in the south of Turkey.
The IS statement said the attack was in response to Turkey’s military intervention against the jihadists in war-ravaged Syria the military presses a four-month incursion to oust jihadists from the border area.
In the last few weeks, the forces have encountered fierce opposition from the jihadists around the town of Al-Bab. The army said Turkish war planes launched new air strikes around Al Bab.
Arriving by taxi at the plush Reina nightclub on the shores of the Bosphorus, the gunman produced a weapon, reportedly a Kalashnikov, and shot dead a policeman and civilian at the entrance.
According to the Hurriyet daily, the gunman then fired off four magazines containing a total of 120 bullets around the club, as terrified guests flung themselves into the freezing waters of the Bosphorus in panic.
But after changing clothes, the gunman left the nightclub in the ensuing chaos and has managed to evade security forces.
Interior minister Suleyman Soylu said Sunday that intense efforts were under way to find the gunman, and expressed hope that he would be captured soon.
Late on Sunday, police rushed to Istanbul’s Kurucesme district after a tip-off but the operation did not produce any arrest.
“The danger continues,” wrote columnist Abdulkadir Selvi in Hurriyet.
“So long as this terrorist is not seized we do not know when and where a massacre could take place.”
The Dogan news agency said anti-terror police have detained eight suspects. But there was no indication of their relationship to the attacker.
Hurriyet said investigators believe the gunman may be from the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan.
The attacker may be linked to the same cell that in June carried out a triple suicide bombing and gun attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport blamed on IS that left 47 people dead, the paper added.
Turkey also received intelligence from the United States on December 30 warning of the risk of attacks by IS in Istanbul and Ankara on New Year’s night, the paper said.
The pro-government daily Yeni Akit caused a furore on social media with a headline declaring the United States was the “number one suspect” over the attack.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the nightclub bloodbath sought to sow “chaos”, was on Monday due to chair a meeting of the Turkish cabinet.
NTV television said the bodies of 25 foreigners killed in the attack were to be handed back to their families on Monday following identification.
According to Turkish press reports, the latest figures show 12 Turks were killed in the attack alongside 27 foreigners, including one Belgian-Turkish dual national. Sixty-five people were wounded.
The foreigners who died — most of them from Arab countries and including Muslims — had come to the club to celebrate a special night in style.