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First images of Istanbul club shooter emerge as manhunt continues

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 2/01/2017 JASON SILVERSTEIN, STEPHEN REX BROWN

Chilling images emerged Sunday of the bloodthirsty terrorist who opened fire at a posh Istanbul nightclub and killed 39 people who were celebrating the new year.

Surveillance footage showed the shooter, clad in black and wearing a backpack, carrying an assault-style rifle outside before storming the Reina nightclub.

Medics carry a wounded person from the nightclub shooting. - AP © Provided by New York Daily News Medics carry a wounded person from the nightclub shooting. - AP

The bloodbath occurred just over an hour into 2017, leaving at least an additional 70 people injured.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 1: Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina, a popular night club in Istanbul near by the Bosphorus shores, in Istanbul, January 1, 2017, Turkey. According to Turkey's interior minister Suleyman Soylu at least 39 people, including at least 15 foreigners have been killed dead and 40 wounded at terror attack at Istanbul's famous night club of Reina in Bosphorus shores in the new year party. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX *** - Burak Kara © Provided by New York Daily News ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 1: Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina, a popular night club in Istanbul near by the Bosphorus shores, in Istanbul, January 1, 2017, Turkey. According to Turkey's interior minister Suleyman Soylu at least 39 people, including at least 15 foreigners have been killed dead and 40 wounded at terror attack at Istanbul's famous night club of Reina in Bosphorus shores in the new year party. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX *** - Burak Kara

Mystery surrounded the gunman, who witnesses said was screaming “Allahu akbar!” — “God is great” in Arabic — as he sprayed bullets into the crowd.

A manhunt intensified as the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, praising the gunman as a "heroic soldier of the caliphate" in a statement early Monday.

"In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday," the statement read.

Authorities didn’t comment on a motive or possible identity for the shooter.

“God willing, he will be caught in a short period of time,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denied reports the shooter wore a Santa Claus outfit during the mayhem, describing him simply as an “armed terrorist.”

At least 26 of the victims came from other countries, authorities said. Among them were an 18-year-old Israeli woman, seven Saudis, three from Lebanon, a Canadian and a French citizen.

U.S. authorities did not believe any Americans were killed. A small-business owner from Pennsylvania, Jake Raak, was shot in the leg and survived.

The shooter arrived about 1:15 a.m., armed with a long-barreled weapon, authorities said. He killed a policeman and a civilian outside the club before barging inside. Mehmet Dag, 22, was passing by the club and saw the suspect shooting.

“Once he went in, we don’t know what happened. There were gun sounds, and after two minutes the sound of an explosion,” Dag said.

An estimated 600 people were celebrating inside the club that is often frequented by famous locals, including singers, actors and soccer players. International stars like Salma Hayek, Sting and Uma Thurman have also been spotted at the club.

“At first we thought some men were fighting with each other,” said a Lebanese woman who gave her name as Hadeel. She was in the club with her husband and a friend.

“Then we heard the sound of the gunfire and ducked under the tables,” she said.

“We heard the guy screaming ‘Allahu akbar,’ all three of us heard that. ... We heard his footsteps crushing the broken glass. We got out through the kitchen, there was blood everywhere and bodies.”

The killer left a gun at the venue and escaped by “taking advantage of the chaos” that ensued, Yildirim said.

Some revelers reportedly jumped into the waters of the Bosporus Strait to escape.

The shooting came just weeks after two major attacks in Istanbul, capping off a bloody 2016 for Turkey, a key U.S. ally.

On Dec. 10, a bomb detonated outside a soccer stadium near the Reina club, killing 45 people. The Kurdish Freedom Falcons, a Kurdish militant group, claimed responsibility.

Nine days later, an off-duty police officer assassinated Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, as the diplomat gave a speech at a photo exhibition.

ISIS is thought to have cells in the country. The terrorist network has made calls for its followers to “conquer” Istanbul.

Analysts believe ISIS was likely behind suicide bombings last January and March, as well as a suicide bomb and gun attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June that left 45 dead.

The country also endured a coup attempt on July 15. A state of emergency has been in force since then.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his Turkish counterpart condolences, saying, “It is hard to imagine a more cynical crime than killing innocent people during new year celebrations.”

The White House condemned what it called a “horrific terrorist attack.”

With News Wire Services

With Nicole Hensley

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