The Turkish authorities have arrested two Chinese nationals of Uighur origin for suspected links to the mass shooting in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve claimed by ISIS, media reports said.
The suspects, named as Omar Asim and Abuliezi Abuduhamiti, were arrested on charges of “being members of a terrorist organization”, of “purchasing unlicensed firearms” and “being accomplices to the murder of 39 people”, state-run Anadolu Agency cited a prosecutor as saying.
A witness in the central Anatolian city of Konya had reportedly seen Asim with the Reina nightclub attacker, the agency said late Friday.
The gunman remains at large despite a massive manhunt.
Officials said last week the attacker was likely a Turkic Uighur, with authorities reportedly looking into the possible existence of a cell, including other jihadists from Central Asia.
Uighurs are from the restive Xinjiang region of far-western China.
However, Turkish press reports said the attacker, who also injured 65 people on New Year’s night, has been identified as an Uzbek jihadist who belongs to ISIS.
The killer, reportedly known by the code name Ebu Muhammed Horasani, shot his way into the exclusive Istanbul nightclub Reina and opened fire with an automatic rifle, throwing stun grenades to allow himself to reload and shooting the wounded on the ground just 75 minutes into 2017.
At least 35 people have been detained so far in connection with the attack, according to Anadolu. Uighurs were among those detained, local media reports said.
ISIS claimed the nightclub massacre, the first time it has ever clearly claimed a major attack in Turkey despite being blamed for several strikes including the Istanbul airport bombings.
Hurriyet daily quoted police sources as saying that the attacker, which it identified as Uzbek ISIS militant Abdulgadir Masharipov who goes by the nom de guerre of Ebu Muhammed Horasani, escaped with his son after the shooting.
Police raided a house in Istanbul’s Maltepe district and detained Masharipov’s wife, whose identity has been kept hidden. Previous reports stated that his wife and his family members had been detained by police after the attack, Hurriyet said.
“I learned about the attack from TV. I didn’t know that my husband was an ISIS militant, let alone a sympathizer,” media reports had quoted his wife as saying.
According to newly obtained information, Masharipov’s wife was detained in Maltepe late on Jan. 11, while his 1.5-year-old daughter was taken under protection. Police said Masharipov arrived in the Central Anatolian province of Konya with his two children at the beginning of 2016.
The militant rented a house in Istanbul’s Başakşehir toward the end of December 2016 with his family, according to investigations. He said goodbye to his wife late on Dec. 31, 2016, and left the house.
After staging the attack on the nightclub, the man went to a house in Zeytinburnu, where his wife and children were brought to. Masharipov then took his 4-year-old son and went missing, Hurriyet said.