ISTANBUL â€” Turkish police are closing in on the gunman who killed 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub, a senior official said Thursday, insisting his possible whereabouts and contacts had been established.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak told A Haber news channel in an interview that gunman who attacked Istanbul’s upscale Reina nightclub during New Year’s celebrations, is most probably from China’s Muslim Uighur minority and was a “specially trained member of a (terror) cell.”
“The security forces have determined his identify, his possible whereabouts have been determined… His contacts have also been determined,” he told A Haber. “We can say that the circle is closing in on him.”
Kaynak said authorities believe the man, whose name hasn’t been revealed, is still inside Turkey, although they haven’t completely ruled out the possibility that he may have escaped.
“Because we have taken utmost measures at our airports â€” even though we don’t rule it out completely â€” we believe that we will get results from operations inside Turkey,” he said.
His comments came hours after police conducted more raids in their hunt for the gunman, detaining several people at a housing complex on the city’s outskirts, the state-run news agency reported.
Anadolu Agency said gendarmerie police and special operations teams conducted raids in the Silivri district, detaining an undisclosed number of Uighurs. The report said that those rounded up were suspected of “aiding and abetting” the gunman.
At least 39 other people â€” including 11 women â€” are already in custody over suspected links to the attack.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the massacre, saying it was in reprisal for Turkish military operations in northern Syria. Most of the victims of the attack were foreigners from the Middle East.
The gunman reportedly escaped in a taxi after the attack. Turkish media have widely published images of the suspect, including a selfie video filmed at Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Security has been tightened around Istanbul and at border crossings and airports to prevent him from fleeing Turkey.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus suggested in an interview with the Hurriyet Daily news newspaper and other sister publications that “foreign intelligence services” could be behind the attack, pointing at the “professional” manner in which it was carried out.
“I am of the opinion that it’s not possible for the perpetrator to have carried out such an attack without any support. It seems like a secret service thing. All these things are being assessed,” Hurriyet Daily News quoted Kurtulmus as saying in the interview published on Thursday.
A group of about 20 suspects were also detained on Wednesday in a police operation in Izmir, western Turkey. Anadolu said the suspects are from the largely Muslim Russian republic of Dagestan, as well as members of China’s Muslim Uighur minority and from Syria. They are thought to have lived with the gunman in an alleged IS cell house in the central Turkish city of Konya, the agency reported. About 20 children who were with the detainees were also taken to a police station.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.
Dusan Stojanovic, The Associated Press