By ZEYNEP BILGINSOY and SUZAN FRASER
A manhunt is on in Turkey for an assailant who unleashed a salvo of bullets in front of and inside a crowded Istanbul nightclub during New Year’s celebrations Sunday, killing at least 39 people before fleeing.
Foreigners were among the fatalities, including an 18-year-old Israeli woman, three Indian citizens, a 26-year-old man from Lebanon and a Belgian national, according to the countries’ respective foreign ministries and a relative.
Close to 70 others were injured in what authorities described as a terror attack. Three of the wounded were in critical condition, Turkey’s prime minister said.
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 “foreign guests.”
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, Gov. Vasip Sahin said.
“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,” Sahin told reporters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack and authorities did not name any suspects. The bloodiest attacks that Turkey endured in 2016 were the work of the Islamic State group or Kurdish militants.
Turkey is a member of NATO and a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group. The country is also facing renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast, and across the border in Syria and Iraq.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said a suspect has not been identified and that the gunman remains at large. Soylu, describing the attack as a “massacre, a truly inhumane savagery,” said three or four of the Turkish victims may have been employees at the nightclub.
“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, on the European side of the city, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit.
Security camera footage obtained by The Associated Press from Haberturk newspaper, shows the male assailant dressed in black and carrying a backpack as he shoots down a police officer outside the Reina nightclub.
Footage taken by a different camera shows him inside the venue wearing different clothes and a Santa Claus hat.
However, Turkey’s prime minister denied that the gunman wore a Santa Claus outfit.
“There is no truth to this. He is an armed terrorist as we know it,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters.
Yildirim said the attacker left a gun inside 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 victims include a 22-year-old police officer and a 47-year-old travel agent, both of whom were shot outside the club.
The nightclub area remained sealed off on Sunday afternoon.
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 the club searching through piles of mingled 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 those shot dead were brought for identification. Some relatives cried out and fell to the ground as they apparently learned the fate of their loved ones.
Turkey’s Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya said citizens of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon and Libya were among those hurt in the attack.
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 new 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 issued Sunday 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.”
Major attacks carried out by IS or Kurdish militants killed more than 180 people in Istanbul and Ankara alone in 2016.
On Dec. 10, a double bomb attack outside a soccer stadium near the Reina nightclub killed 45 people and wounded some 150 others. The attack was claimed by Turkey-based Kurdish militant group, the Kurdish Freedom Falcons.
“Turkey continues its combat against terror and is absolutely determined to do whatever is necessary in the region to ensure its citizens safety and peace,” President Erdogan said in a written statement Sunday.
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.”
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.
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.
The prime minister’s office issued a media blackout on the events and asked media to refrain from broadcasting and publishing anything that may cause “fear in the public, panic and disorder and which may serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”
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 disguised as Santa Claus and others as street vendors, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported.
Fraser reported from Ankara. Associated Press writers Mehmet Guzel and Dusan Stojanovic in Istanbul and Dominique Soguel in Vannes, France, contributed to this report.