U.S. and Turkish investigators worked urgently Wednesday to determine the motive and affiliation of gunmen whose shootout at the U.S. Consulate here left three Turkish police officers and three assailants dead.
Turkish news reports cited police sources as saying Al Qaeda was suspected in the attack, the most serious assault on a foreign diplomatic mission in Turkey in five years. But there was no immediate confirmation of the report or claim of responsibility.
Police identified the dead assailants as Turkish nationals and later released the names of two. Turkish news media, citing investigators, said that at least two of the men were thought to have visited Afghanistan and that one was believed to have been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the names did not match those on a list of Turks known to have been held there.
No consulate personnel were injured in the shooting, which occurred shortly before 11 a.m. in the tidy, prosperous district of Istinye, about a 20-minute drive north from the city center. The consulate had moved out of downtown for security reasons after Al Qaeda militants in 2003 attacked the British Consulate, a bank and two synagogues, killing more than 60 people.
Before that, the American Consulate, like most other foreign missions, had been near the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi.
U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson told reporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara, that the attack was an “obvious act of terrorism.” He praised the police response and said the United States was cooperating closely with authorities here in the investigation.
Already tight security around U.S. diplomatic installations in Turkey was stepped up after the shooting, Wilson said. Authorities were poring over footage from the consulate’s surveillance cameras, trying to piece together the sequence of events.
President Abdullah Gul condemned the attack and pledged that his country would “fight against those who masterminded such acts and the mentality behind it until the end.”
The U.S. and Turkey, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are close allies, but polls have consistently showed that a large majority of Turks dislike the regional policies of the Bush administration. The Iraq war generated an upsurge of anti-American sentiment in Turkey.
The country on several occasions has been the staging ground for attacks by a small but virulent Islamist movement. Other violent groups operating in Turkey include Kurdish insurgents and a loosely organized network of right-wing nationalists.
Within moments of Wednesday’s shooting, police sealed off the area around the walled, fortress-like consulate complex, which is set high on a hillside overlooking the Bosporus strait. Officials at the scene, including Istanbul’s governor, said a light-colored car was seen dropping off the three gunmen near the entrance to the consulate’s visa section. Traffic police quickly spotted the men, and the two sides exchanged gunfire, witnesses said.
The driver of the car escaped and was the target of an intense manhunt. Interior Minister Besir Atalay said the fugitive might have been wounded in the shooting.
In addition to the three officers killed, two people were wounded, authorities said. They were variously identified as two policemen, or an officer and a tow truck driver.
The gunfight created panic along the steep, winding street outside the consulate, which is lined with low-slung apartment buildings, shops and cafes. People waiting in line for visas outside the mission scattered and ran. Patrons in a little cafe just across the street ducked for cover.
Witnesses described an intense fusillade that lasted at least five minutes.
“There was a lot of heavy shooting. We were scared,” said Muhammet Nur, a 15-year-old boy who was visiting a teenage friend working at a carwash across from the consulate entrance.
Fatih Gunay, an area resident, said he saw the car arrive and the three men get out. One was wearing a jacket, he said.
“I thought, why would someone wear a jacket in this heat?” he said. Temperatures reached 89 degrees during the day.
The man then pulled a gun from underneath the bulky garment, he said.
“When I heard the first gunshot, I thought maybe someone shot in the air,” said Gunay, 34, referring to a celebratory practice common here. “When the shooting got heavy, I understood something was going on at the American Consulate, and I quickly got inside.”
After the attack, a phalanx of police in body armor, some cradling automatic weapons, prevented onlookers and a crowd of Turkish and foreign journalists from approaching the complex. Behind the yellow crime scene tape, forensic investigators in white coats could be seen examining objects on the ground, including a shotgun. Detectives moved from one building to another along the street, questioning witnesses.
At the time of the shooting, some senior consulate staff members and high-ranking U.S. officials were attending an anti-drug conference at a downtown hotel. They included Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Scott Burns, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.