At least 35 dead in attack on Istanbul nightclub

Witnesses describe gunmen opening fire in a packed nightclub.
Published January 1 2017
Updated January 1 2017

ISTANBUL — Dozens of people were killed early today when at least one gunman opened fire on revelers celebrating the new year in one of Istanbul's most popular nightclubs, in the latest in a series of deadly terrorist attacks that have shaken Turkey.

Istanbul Mayor Vasip Sahin put the death toll at 35, with at least 40 people wounded. Witnesses described gunmen spraying the crowds with gunfire, and stampedes of panicked patrons scrambling for cover at the waterside club, called Reina.

The assault began about 1 a.m., when a gunman shot and killed a police officer who was guarding the door, according to Sahin, who spoke to reporters in front of the club about two hours after the shooting. After killing the officer, the gunman "brutally and violently attacked innocent people who came here to enjoy themselves," Sahin said, calling it a "terrorist attack."

Sahin mentioned only one assailant, but other witnesses, speaking to local media, said they had seen two or more.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting. It was at least the fourth major attack in Turkey in less than a month, raising questions about the ability of the government, a NATO member and critical regional ally of the United States, to counter an array of threats stemming from the war across Turkey's border in Syria, as well as an escalating conflict with Kurdish militants inside Turkey.

President Barack Obama has been briefed on the assault and has "directed his team to offer appropriate assistance to the Turkish authorities," White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said in a statement.

At the time of the attack early Sunday, there were hundreds of people inside the club, which sits on the Bosporus strait, according to local media. There were unconfirmed reports that the gunman stormed the club wearing a Santa Claus costume. Patrons jumped into the water to escape the gunfire, according to social media reports, and dozens of ambulances could be heard heading toward the club, in Istanbul's Ortakoy district.

Special forces then stormed the club.

The club's owner, Mehmet Kocarslan, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that there had been increased security at the club for a week or more, because of warnings from "American intelligence."

"We were there, we were having fun, when all of a sudden people started running," Sinem Uyanik told Hurriyet. Uyanik was waiting outside a hospital, where her husband, who was also at the club, was being treated for gunshot wounds.

"It was so horrible. It smelled like gunpowder," Uyanik said, adding that she saw two gunmen. At some point, she fainted, and then "woke up and saw my husband covered in blood."