A gunman, allegedly disguised as Santa, has killed 39 clubbers inside an Istanbul nightclub in a New Year’s Eve terror attack.
The gunman shot his way into the popular Reina nightclub packed with New Year’s revellers at around 1.30am local time (10.30am AEDT).
The attacker is believed to have opened fire at police outside the nightclub before entering and firing on people inside.
While earlier media reports said more than one assailant may have been involved in the attack, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the gunman was acting alone.
He also said the attacker was believed to have left the club wearing “different clothing” to those he entered the club in.
Soylu raised the death toll to 39 with around 69 others wounded at the nightclub in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district.
CCTV footage has also emerged from inside the nightclub, allegedly showing the gunman in a jacket and Santa hat making his way across the nightclub floor.
Turkish journalist Ürün Dirier tweeted what is reportedly CCTV from inside the club.
Just before he goes out of view he drops something to the ground, which is covered in debris.
The attack sparked mass panic, with some diving into the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia to escape the bullets. Rescuers were battling to bring them to safety.
“A terrorist with a long-range weapon brutally and savagely carried out this incident by firing bullets on innocent people who were there solely to celebrate the New Year and have fun,” Istanbul's Governor Sahin told reporters at the scene.
“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 added, telling reporters at the scene it was a “terror attack”.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is looking into whether there were any Australians involved in the attack.
“The Australian Embassy in Ankara is liaising with local authorities to determine whether any Australians may have been involved in the nightclub attack that occurred in Ortakoy, Istanbul, on the morning of 1 January,” a spokesman said.
DFAT also said those unable to contact loved ones over there should call them.
The Australian government closely monitors the travel advice for all countries and reviews them as necessary. We will continue to monitor the travel advice for all parts of Turkey, including Gallipoli. Those with concerns for the welfare of family and friends in the region should attempt to contact them directly. If you are unable to make contact and still concerned for their welfare, please call the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s 24 hour Consular Emergency Centre on 1 300 555 135, or +61 2 6261 3305 (if calling from overseas).”
Australia’s ambassador to Turkey, James Larsen, offered support to the Turkish government.
He confirmed that work was continuing to identify the other victims. Four of the wounded are in a serious condition, he added, including one in a very critical condition.
Indicating that the attacker was still at large, Soylu said: “The search for the terrorist continues. The police have started the necessary operations. I hope the assailant will be captured quickly, God willing.”
As many as 700 people were dancing to celebrate the New Year at the nightspot, which chimed in barely an hour before the attack.
The elite club targeted in the attack lies on the shore of the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey’s most populous city.
According to some witnesses , the attackers were “speaking Arabic”.
Professional footballer Sefa Boydas said he had only been in the club with two friends for about 10 minutes before he heard gunshots and his friend collapsed in shock.
“Just as we were settling down, by the door there was a lot of dust and smoke. Gunshots rang out. When those sounds were heard, many girls fainted.” He said that people appeared to be crushed as they ran away from the attacker.
“They say 35 to 40 died but it’s probably more because when I was walking, people were walking on top of people,” said Boydas, who plays full time for Istanbul club Beylerbeyi SK.
Boydas initially tried to escape holding his friend but upon seeing her older sister faint, the footballer said his friend also passed out.
He described the screams which he said drowned out anything said by the attackers.
“But even if there were shouting, you wouldn’t hear because the crowd’s screams were 100 times louder,” a distressed Boydas added.
He described how the area was full of police, saying that officers came quickly to the scene but kept many at the club for prolonged periods during their investigation.
After a slew of attacks in Turkey this year, Boydas said for the first time ever he had feared going out on New Year’s Eve.
But while making plans with friends, his fears were dismissed. “I was hesitant that there could be a fight, something might happen, a bomb. A friend said: ‘It wouldn’t never happen in a place like Reina’.
“I said actually the target is places like that. I felt something. I went after the New Year began and it happened 10 minutes after I entered.”
Another eyewitness, Sinem Uyanik, said she saw several bodies inside the Istanbul nightclub. Her husband Lutfu Uyanik was wounded in the attack.
“Before I could understand what was happening, my husband fell on top of me,” she said outside Istanbul’s Sisli Hospital. “I had to lift several bodies from on top of me before I could get out.” Her husband was not in serious condition despite his wounds.
Mehmet Kocarslan, the club’s owner said that security had been beefed up at the club over the last 10 days after US intelligence officials shared information about a planned attack. He said the attackers used Kalashnikov rifles.
The club is known as one of the most elite nightspots in the city and it is notoriously hard to get past the bouncers, who seek out only the best dressed. It is also one of Istanbul’s best-known nightclubs, popular with locals and tourists alike.
Television pictures showed shell-shocked revellers dressed up to the nines — men in suits and women in cocktail dresses — emerging dazed from the scene.
Dozens of ambulances and police vehicles were dispatched to the club in Ortakoy, a cosmopolitan neighbourhood nestled under one of three bridges crossing the Bosphorus, and home to clubs, restaurants and art galleries.
Footage taken from the outside of the club and posted to YouTube after the attack shows police and ambulance vehicles at the scene. An AP photographer says police cordoned off the area about three kilometres away from the nightclub and reported multiple ambulances passing by.
President Barack Obama has expressed condolences for the deadly attack at a nightclub in Istanbul and directed his team to offer US help to Turkish authorities.
“This afternoon the president was briefed by his national security team on the attack in Istanbul,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.
“The president expressed condolences for the innocent lives lost, directed his team to offer appropriate assistance to the Turkish authorities, as necessary, and keep him updated as warranted.”
Istanbul has been the target of a series of recent attacks by Islamic State and Kurdish extremist groups.
The latest attack comes as Turkey remains on a heightened state of alert following a spate of terror attacks across the country.
In Istanbul, 17,000 police officers were put on duty on New Year’s Eve, some camouflaged as Santa Claus and others as street vendors.
Less than two weeks ago 13 Turkish soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in a car bombing targeting off-duty soldiers being taken by bus on a weekend shopping trip.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan blamed the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the car bomb attack on a bus in the central city of Kayseri.
That explosion came a week after 44 people were killed on December 10 in a double bombing in Istanbul after a football match. The attack was claimed by Kurdish militants.
In June, 47 people were killed in a triple suicide bombing and gun attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, with authorities blaming the Islamic State group.
Another 57 people including 34 children were killed in August in a suicide attack by an IS-linked bomber at a Kurdish wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.