ISTANBUL: A heavily armed man opened fire at one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions Wednesday, wounding a Turkish soldier and a security guard before police snipers killed the attacker, officials said.
The motive for the assault at Topkapi Palace was not immediately known. But police said the man, a Libyan with Syrian citizenship, had entered Turkey only three days ago.
Police said the attacker arrived at the palace in a car with Syrian license plates. Minutes before the attack, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had announced tough economic sanctions on Syria to protest its government’s crackdown on an 8-month-old pro-democracy uprising.
Multiple gun shots were heard from behind the high walls of the Topkapi Palace before the attacker was killed, and some tourists threw themselves on the ground to avoid the violence, officials and witnesses said.
Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years, is located in the city’s historic Sultanahmet district, which also includes the Blue Mosque and the former Byzantine church of Haghia Sophia.
The palace – including ornate courtyards, gilded treasures and dozens of rooms that once housed harems, attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Witnesses said the man shot the soldier in the leg and the guard in the abdomen before running into the palace courtyard through the main gate, chanting in Arabic “God is Great!”
Istanbul’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, said the wounded are not in life-threatening condition.
Mutlu said the gunman made no demands and that police decided to shoot him when he refused to surrender.
Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said the attacker had entered Turkey Sunday. The state-run TRT TV, citing unidentified officials, identified him as 36-year-old Samir Salem Ali Elmadhavri, a Libyan with Syrian citizenship.
Authorities would divulge further details about the man’s identity and Sahin said it was not immediately known whether the attacker was affiliated with any groups or organizations in Libya or Syria.
The prosecutor’s office in Istanbul launched an investigation into the attack, authorities said.
A spokesman for Libya’s National Transition Council, Jalal al-Galal, said authorities in Tripoli have no information at this point on the gunman.
The man was seen at an outdoor cafe in the area before going on his rampage, witnesses told Associated Press TV. A photo obtained by the Associated Press shows the attacker holding a rifle and a cartridge belt around his neck.
“I saw the gunman carrying a gun on his shoulder, like a hunter. He had ammunition around his neck and a backpack. His overcoat was buttoned, I couldn’t see what was underneath,” witness Idris Cengiz told AP TV. “He was coming toward us and my friend said he looked like a hunter so I asked him in English ‘Are you a hunter?’ He said something in Arabic which I didn’t understand. Then he said ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is Great].”
Cengiz said he and his friend heard the gun shots moments later.
“We ran and saw a soldier and a guard laying on the ground,” he said.
No tourists were hurt in the attack.
“I’m not afraid because this kind of thing can happen anywhere these days, even in Amsterdam, where I live,” Dutch tourist, Yeuonne Alkemade, told AP TV. “I’m sad for Turkey and Istanbul because this is one of the top tourist attractions here.”
Turkey has suffered a number of terrorist attacks in the past.
Earlier this year, police arrested alleged Turkish members of Al-Qaeda terrorist network accused of planning to attack the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and another group in the southern city of Adana, which is home to the Incirlik Air Base used by the United States to transfer noncombat supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan.