ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkish police were questioning Tuesday the suspected jihadist who slaughtered 39 people on New Year’s night at an Istanbul nightclub, after capturing him in a raid on a residential area of the city after a long manhunt.
The alleged assailant, named as Abdulgadir Masharipov, was found along with his four-year-old son in an apartment in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul after a massive police operation, state-run TRT television reported. Four other suspects were detained, including three women.
The attacker had been on the run for 17 days, after slipping into the night following the attack on the glamorous Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus.
Reports had previously suggested he never left the Turkish metropolis, despite a tightening of borders in a bid to stop him escaping, triggering fears that a dangerous killer was on the loose in the city.
The Islamic State (IS) group took responsibility for the bloodbath, the first time it has ever openly claimed a major attack in Turkey.
It had previously been blamed for several strikes in Turkey this year, including the triple suicide bombings at Istanbul airport in June.
The suspect was caught in an operation jointly carried out by the Turkish police and the spy agency MIT, Turkish TV said. A 1,000 strong police squad was set up to ensure Masharipov’s arrest.
Turkish media published a picture of the detained man with blood on his face and T-shirt, his neck gripped by a policeman.
Television images showed him being roughly led away, his head bent low.
He was given an obligatory health check before being taken to Istanbul’s police headquarters for questioning.
Images of the suspected attacker released by police during the manhunt were taken from a chilling silent video he purportedly took on Istanbul’s Taksim Square with a selfie stick, before carrying out the carnage.
– ‘Tracked for 3 days’ –
There had been confusion over the identity of the attacker in the wake of the massacre, with reports initially suggesting a Kyrgyz national and then a Uighur from China.
But reports on January 8 said intelligence services and anti-terror police in Istanbul had identified him as a 34-year-old Uzbek who was part of a Central Asian IS cell.
The state run Anadolu news agency identified the detained man as Abdulgadir Masharipov, while the Dogan news agency said he used the code name of Ebu Muhammed Horasani within IS.
These are the same names given in the January 8 reports.
The suspect was living in an apartment rented by a Kyrgyz in Istanbul who was also detained, TRT reported.
Anadolu said as well as Masharipov and the Kyrgyz, three women were detained from Egypt, Senegal and Somalia.
Capturing the suspect alive will be seen as a major victory for the Turkish security forces and he may be able to shed light on the existence of other IS cells in the city.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote on Twitter that “in the name of the nation” he thanked the police and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for the capture.
NTV television said the attacker was captured at a quarter past midnight (2115 GMT). The police had spotted his location three days earlier, but preferred to track him to identify his contacts.
The son is under protection, the reports said.
– ‘Bloody start to 2017’ –
Turkish media reports had said that the gunman was a well-trained killer who had fought for IS in Syria and had gained weapons expertise there.
The investigation had also focused on the central Turkish city of Konya where the attacker was reported to have lived for several weeks after returning from Syria before moving to Istanbul.
At least 35 people had been detained in the investigation before Masharipov’s arrest, according to Anadolu.
Of the 39 killed in the attack on the glamorous nightclub, 27 were foreigners including citizens from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Morocco who had been hoping to celebrate a special New Year.
The attack, just 75 minutes into 2017, rocked Turkey which had already been shaken by a string of attacks in 2016 blamed on jihadists and Kurdish militants that left hundreds dead.
Turkey had been accused by its Western allies of not doing enough to halt the rise of IS but the charges are denied by the Turkish authorities, who note the group has been listed as a terror organisation in the country since 2013.