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Suspect At Large In Turkish Nightclub Attack; ISIS Claims Responsibility

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Turkey, a massive manhunt continues for an attacker who killed 39 people at a nightclub in Istanbul. It happened in the early hours of the new year. The Islamic State issued a statement claiming responsibility saying the attack was carried out by what they called a, quote, "hero soldier of the caliphate." The mass shooting brings an already violent year in Turkey to an end. Just a couple of weeks ago, a gunman opened fire in an art gallery killing the ambassador from Russia.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now on the line from Istanbul. Peter, what can you tell us at this point about the investigation into the nightclub attack?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, about this ISIS claim of responsibility, I think we need to be a bit cautious. It hasn't been verified. The statement describes the Istanbul gunman as a heroic soldier of the caliphate and says the shooting attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul was targeting a location, quote, "where Christians celebrate their apostate holiday."

Now, this attack does seem to fit with the nature of what went on - an attack against civilians and a soft target. That's been the pattern in previous ISIS attacks, but we should mention the assailant still being sought. We still don't know what motivated him, or if he was a Turk or a foreign national. Although, we do have quotes now in some Turkish newspapers from police suggesting that authorities believe he may be from Central Asia, possibly Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. That's not confirmed. The search is continuing, and the workweek here is starting mainly as normal.

MARTIN: This was a very hip club, I understand, that attracted a cosmopolitan kind of crowd. People from several different countries were there and presumably among those who were killed.

KENYON: Yes, many foreigners. A Lebanese delegation has already arrived to bringing families of some of the Lebanese victims. State media are just bringing forward increasingly large numbers of foreign casualties. All but one of the bodies have now been identified, more than twice as many foreigners dead as Turks. Saudi Arabia looks to have lost seven people - three Lebanese, three Iraqis as well as people from Tunisia, Morocco, France, Belgium, Israel, Libya. As you said, this club's a place that attracts foreigners as well as wealthy Turks, and that's reflected in the death toll.

MARTIN: You've been down to the Reina club this morning and talked to some people there. Let's listen to a little bit of what you found.

KENYON: The Reina nightclub entrance is covered in a blue tarp with a large Turkish flag laid over it. A knot of TV reporters shivers in the cold across the street. A man who works in a parking lot just a few yards away doesn't want to give his name but says simply, it was a massacre.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: "Sadly," he says, "we're getting used to it. Every 10 or 15 days something blows up in this country. How can we work? This is the end of work." He says, "I know our security forces are on alert, and people are trying to be careful, but what can you do when some guy just hides a gun and goes on a rampage? They can't do anything. It happens in all kinds of neighborhoods, not just here. It's hard to believe, but we're getting used to this."

Police have been going through the crime scene looking for evidence that might help them catch the attacker and answer some basic questions such as was there only one gunman as officials believe? If all the bullets in the nightclub were fired from the same weapon, for instance, that might help answer that question.

Security camera footage appears to show a man dressed in black shooting and entering the club. And different footage showed an attacker inside wearing different clothes. The interior minister says the attacker changed clothes before fleeing - one of many unanswered questions.

For people here, another question is, when will these bloody attacks stop? The government's calling for unity, but people were still recovering from last month's explosion at a soccer stadium just down the road from here and then the shocking assassination of Russia's ambassador in Ankara and now this.

MARTIN: A grim scene there, clearly. What are we learning at this hour, Peter, about how Turkey may respond to this attack?

KENYON: Well, if this claim of responsibility by ISIS does hold up, one question would be, is there a connection to Turkey's military operations against the group in northern Syria? We might see at least a continuation of those strikes, if not, an escalation. We're seeing claims of that escalation already. There was a security meeting here yesterday. President Erdogan is promising the fight against terrorism will continue without let up. And today, Turkish media are reporting a joint Turkish and Russian airstrikes against ISIS targets inside northern Syria, they say, hitting more than 100 locations.

So, basically, the government's been taking a very hard line against what it calls an array of terrorist enemies. I mean, this includes not just ISIS, but Kurdish militants both in Turkey and Syria, far left groups, supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen. He's been blamed for last summer's failed coup attempt, which he denies. So it looks like there's been no big shift in policies, and a hard response is what's coming.

MARTIN: I mean, Peter, you've been in Istanbul now for several years. Can you just take a step back briefly and describe to us how Turkey has changed?

KENYON: Well, when I arrived in 2010, Turkey was still being held as a model for the Middle East - a functioning economically strong democracy run by pious Muslim leaders. In the years that followed, it's been crisis after crisis both involving internal politics and outside forces. And these days, Turkey is seen as having an increasingly authoritarian leader. Its involvement in Syria has made it a target of ISIS, there's a war with Kurdish militants going on and, of course, that failed coup attempt. So, yes, big changes indeed.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.