Istanbul (AFP) – Turkish authorities on Tuesday intensified efforts to identify and detain a suspected jihadist who killed 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub, and who reportedly fought in Syria alongside Islamic State jihadists.
Police released pictures of the suspect who went on the rampage at the plush Reina nightclub on New Year’s night, spraying some 120 bullets at terrified guests before slipping away into the night.
So far, 16 people are being held over the attack, including two foreigners detained by Turkish police at Istanbul’s main airport. But the killer remains on the run.
Of the 39 dead, 27 were foreigners, mainly from Arab countries, with coffins repatriated overnight to countries including Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
The Islamic State (IS) group on Monday claimed the massacre, the first time it has clearly stated being behind a major attack in Turkey.
The suspect — who has not been named but was reportedly from Central Asia — was staying in a rented flat in Konya before moving to Istanbul to carry out the attack, press reports said.
The Dogan news agency said those detained included a woman suspected of being his wife with whom he had stayed in Konya along with two children.
Reports said police have made progress in the investigation after speaking to the taxi driver who drove the attacker to the club and tracing calls he had made on the driver’s mobile phone.
– ‘Specially selected’ –
The Hurriyet daily said the attacker showed signs of being well trained in the use of arms and had fought in Syria for IS jihadists.
Hurriyet’s well-connected columnist Abdulkadir Selvi he had been trained in street fighting in residential areas in Syria and used these techniques in the attack, shooting from the hip rather than as a sniper.
The attacker had been “specially selected” to carry out the shooting, he said. According to Hurriyet, just 28 bullets failed to hit a target.
“This specially-trained terrorist has still not been detained and is still wandering dangerously amongst us,” he wrote.
He said an IS strike was also planned in Ankara on New Year’s eve but that it had been prevented after eight IS suspects were arrested in the capital. There were no further details.
Near the entrance to the nightclub which lies on the shores of the Bosphorus, an impromptu shrine was set up with pictures of the dead where well-wishers have been piling up flowers.
“The attacker arrived at the door and opened fire towards me,” club manager Ali Unal told AFP.
“My foot slipped and I fell down, the gunshots didn’t stop.”
– ‘Taksim selfie video’ –
Police meanwhile released the first clear images of the attacker, including one taken by security cameras on the night of the attack.
And a chilling video of the suspect taken near Taksim Square in central Istanbul was also released, showing him recording himself with a selfie stick and smiling faintly into the camera.
It was not immediately clear how the footage had been obtained.
Reports said that the attacker could be from Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. In Bishkek, the national security council said it was checking any possible involvement of a Kyrgyz citizen.
In a statement circulated on social media, IS said one of its “soldiers” had carried out the carnage, accusing Turkey — a majority-Muslim country — of being a servant of Christians and saying the shooting was a response to Ankara’s military action against jihadists in Syria.
Turkish troops are pressing a four-month incursion to oust IS jihadists the border area while Ankara is also pushing a ceasefire plan with Russia as a basis for peace talks to end the civil war.
After a cabinet meeting in Ankara chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government vowed that the operation in Syria would continue with “determination”.
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.
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.
They included three Lebanese nationals, two Jordanians and three Iraqis, as well as several Saudis.