Turkey tightens security ahead of New Year attack anniversary

Stuart Williams, Agence France Presse

Posted at Dec 31 2017 11:25 AM

ISTANBUL - Turkey on Sunday is to see in the New Year with muted celebrations and amid the tightest security, under the shadow of the terror attack one year ago on an elite Istanbul nightclub that left 39 dead.

An Uzbek gunman, just 45 minutes into 2017, ran amok with a Kalashnikov at the Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus, killing indiscriminately and later slipping away in a taxi.

The attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State extremist group, was another body blow to Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a year of terror attacks by jihadists and Kurdish rebels as well as the failed coup.

However there has been no major attack in Turkey since the Reina murders, and security forces this year appear to be taking every possible precaution to ensure that this New Year passes without incident.

POLICE DISGUISED AS LOTTERY SELLERS

A total of 37,000 police will be deployed in Istanbul alone on New Year's night, more than double the number last year, according to Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin.

Some 4,000 members of the gendarmerie and coastguard are also being put on duty.

Meanwhile, authorities have either scrapped or banned any New Year celebrations in some of the most popular areas for revelers, including the major hub of Taksim Square, the buzzing area of Besiktas and upscale shopping district of Sisli.

All road access to these areas will be cut off from the afternoon. Turkish state news agency Anadolu said that police disguised as lottery ticket and hot chestnut sellers would be deployed around Taksim to ensure security.

In an unusual move, the Istanbul authorities are also banning heavy goods vehicles from access to the city center from Sunday morning to Monday.

"We are having very serious security measures to ensure that our citizens, God willing, see in the New Year in peace and security," Sahin said.

In the capital Ankara, similar measures have been taken with 9,700 police deployed and New Year celebrations banned in the central Kizilay Square.

Hundreds of suspected IS members, many of them foreigners, have also been arrested in swoops across the country in the past days, with some suspected of planning attacks over the New Year.

REINA SHUT, ATTACKER ON TRIAL

The local authorities are planning a small ceremony at 1300 GMT Sunday to remember the victims of the Reina attack at the scene, attended by foreign consuls and Besiktas mayor Murat Hazinedar.

The Reina nightclub -- once the haunt of Turkish football stars and even foreign celebrities -- meanwhile is no more. It never reopened after the massacre and the authorities later bulldozed it on May 22, saying its owner had violated planning regulations.

Gunman Abdulkadir Masharipov was arrested after a 17 day manhunt hunkering down in a humdrum residential district of Istanbul, in a major triumph for the Turkish police that gave access to a potential goldmine of intelligence about IS activities.

He confessed to have taken his orders to carry out the attack from a Syria-based Russian jihadist with the codename Abu Jihad. Masharipov had first intended to attack Taksim Square but seeing the high security switched his target to the Reina club.

Masharipov and more than 50 other suspects went on trial in Istanbul on December 11, with the Uzbek facing 40 life sentences for each of the victims and the crime itself.

Facing similar charges is his wife Zarina Nurullayeva, who denied any involvement in the plot. Masharipov has refused to testify in the trial, which is now due to resume on March 26.

Of the 39 people killed in the Reina attack, 27 were foreigners, including citizens from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and Morocco.