ISTANBUL — Dozens of people were killed early Sunday 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’s mayor, Vasip Sahin, put the death toll at 35, with at least 40 people wounded. Witnesses described gunmen spraying the crowd 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 policeman, 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. It was not immediately clear where the attacker or attackers were.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting. The mass killing at the nightclub 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.
At least one of the recent assaults — a suicide bombing at a soccer stadium in central Istanbul — was claimed by a Kurdish militant group. But authorities are still investigating who might have planned other attacks, including the Dec. 19 assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, by a police officer who denounced the carnage in Syria’s civil war.
Turkey has recently taken a central role in trying to halt the hostilities in Syria, in coordination with Russia, which is allied with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A recent cease-fire announced by Turkey and Russia was endorsed by several Syrian rebel groups, but it did not include others, including radical Islamist groups that might seek to retaliate against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of its cooperation with Russia.
The attacks have come despite a widening security dragnet by authorities and a broad crackdown by the government on those officials have branded as terrorists.
Ned Price, a White House National Security Council spokesman, released a statement condemning the attack. “That such an atrocity could be perpetrated upon innocent revelers, many of whom were celebrating New Year’s Eve, underscores the savagery of the attackers,” the statement said.
President Obama was 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, according to local media, there were hundreds of people inside the club, which sits on the Bosporus strait. 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 in the direction of the club, in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district.
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.” He told the paper that the gunmen had used Kalashnikov rifles.
“We were there, we were having fun, when all of a sudden people started running,” Sinem Uyanik, a patron of the club, told Hurriyet. Uyanik was waiting outside a hospital, where her husband, who had also been 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 the club. At some point, she fainted, and then “woke up and saw my husband covered in blood,” she told the paper.
“So many people were covered in blood,” she said.
Security forces later stormed the nightclub, Uyanik said. Police in riot gear and armored vehicles blocked the area around the venue, the Associated Press reported. Photos published by the state-run Anadolu news agency showed ambulances lined up outside the building.
Turkish authorities issued a temporary gag order on reporting from the scene of the nightclub. The order also barred media outlets from publishing any information on potential suspects, unless released through official statements.
Such bans are frequent in Turkey, where the government has embarked on a far-reaching crackdown on the news media. Still, images of the carnage circulated on social media early Sunday.
Fahim reported from Cairo.