An assailant believed to have been dressed in a Santa Claus costume opened fire at a nightclub in Istanbul during New Year’s celebrations early Sunday, killing at least 39 people and wounding scores of others in what the province’s governor described as a terrorist attack.
Gov. Vasip Sahin said the attacker, armed with a long-barreled weapon, killed a police officer and a civilian outside the club before entering and firing at people partying inside.
The gunman “rained bullets in a very cruel and merciless way on innocent people who were there to celebrate New Year’s and have fun,” Sahin told reporters.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said early Sunday that the death toll had risen from 35 to 39. The minister said that of the victims identified so far, 16 were foreign nationals. He did not provide any information on their countries.
Soylu said the attacker was still at large and that 69 people were being treated in hospitals following the shooting.
Media reports said the assailant entered the Reina nightclub in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district at 1:45 a.m., dressed in a Santa Claus costume. Some customers jumped into the waters of the Bosporus to escape the attack, reports said.
Sinem Uyanik was inside the club with her husband, who was wounded in the attack.
“Before I could understand what was happening, my husband fell on top me,” she said outside Istanbul’s Sisli Etfal Hospital. “I had to lift several bodies from top of me before I could get out. It was frightening.” Her husband was not in serious condition.
Police in riot gear and machine guns backed up by armored vehicles blocked the area close to the Reina, one of the most popular nightspots in Istanbul, amid heavy rain. Several ambulances flashing blue lights arrived on the scene, some taking wounded to Istanbul hospitals.
The White House condemned what it called a “horrific terrorist attack” and offered U.S. help to Turkey.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said President Obama was briefed on the attack by his national security team and asked to be updated as the situation developed. Obama is vacationing in Hawaii with his family.
White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the attack on “innocent revelers” celebrating New Year’s shows the attackers’ savagery.
An estimated 600 people were celebrating New Year’s Eve inside the club when the attack took place. Several shocked revelers were seen fleeing the scene, and the music fell silent.
The club is close to a soccer stadium where recent suicide attacks killed dozens.
Istanbul had already been under heavy security surveillance during the festivities, with police mounting machine guns and armored vehicles parked on the streets.
Security measures had been heightened in major Turkish cities, with police barring traffic leading up to key squares in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. In Istanbul, 17,000 police officers were put on duty, some camouflaged as Santa Claus and others as street vendors, according to Anadolu, Turkey’s state-run news agency.
Ankara and Istanbul have this year been targeted by several attacks carried out by the Islamic State group or Kurdish rebels, killing more than 180 people.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag vowed that Turkey would press ahead with its fight against violent groups.
“Turkey will continue its determined and effective combat to root out terror,” Bozdag said on Twitter.
9:10 p.m.: This article was updated to report the death toll had risen from 35 to 39.
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes from a witness and U.S. and Turkish government officials.
6 p.m.: This article was updated with a quote from the governor of Istanbul and more details about the attack.
4:55 p.m.: This article was updated with the governor of Istanbul calling the incident a terrorist attack.
4:30 p.m.: This article was updated to report that at least 35 people were killed and that the attacker may still be inside the nightclub.
This article was originally published at 4:10 p.m.