Turkish police are closing in on the gunman who killed 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub, a senior government official said Thursday, insisting the suspect's possible whereabouts and contacts have been established.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak told A Haber news channel in an interview that the gunman who attacked Istanbul's upscale Reina nightclub was probably from China's Muslim Uighur minority and a "specially trained member of a (terror) cell."
"The security forces have determined his identify, his possible whereabouts have been determined... His contacts have also been determined," Kaynak told A Haber. "We can say that the circle is closing in on him."
Kaynak said authorities think the man, whose name hasn't been revealed, is still inside Turkey, although they haven't completely ruled out the possibility that he may have escaped after the New Year's attack.
"Because we have taken utmost measures at our airports — even though we don't rule it out completely — we believe that we will get results from operations inside Turkey," he said.
His comments came hours after police conducted more raids in their hunt for the gunman and detailed several people at a housing complex on Istanbul's outskirts, the state-run news agency reported.
Anadolu Agency said gendarmerie police and special operations teams detained an undisclosed number of Uighurs during the raids. The Anadolu report said they were suspected of "aiding and abetting" the gunman.
At least 39 other people — including 11 women — already were in custody over suspected links to the attack.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility, saying the nightclub attack was in reprisal for Turkish military operations in northern Syria. Most of the victims were foreign nationals from the Middle East.
The nightclub massacre was the latest in a string of attacks by either the IS or Kurdish militants that have rocked the country since the summer of 2015.
On Thursday, suspected Kurdish militants opened fire at police who stopped them at a checkpoint in the western city of Izmir before detonating their explosives-laden vehicle. A policeman and a courthouse employee were killed in the attack, while two assailants also were shot dead.
Izmir Gov. Erol Ayyildiz said preliminary indications pointed to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which resumed attacks in Turkey after a fragile peace process collapsed in 2015.
The nightclub gunman reportedly escaped in a taxi after the attack. Turkish media have widely published images of the suspect, including a selfie video filmed at Istanbul's Taksim Square.
Security has been tightened around Istanbul and at border crossings and airports to prevent him from fleeing Turkey.
Another deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus suggested in an interview with the Hurriyet Daily news newspaper and other sister publications that "foreign intelligence services" could be behind the attack, pointing at the "professional" manner in which it was carried out.
"I am of the opinion that it's not possible for the perpetrator to have carried out such an attack without any support. It seems like a secret service thing. All these things are being assessed," Hurriyet Daily News quoted Kurtulmus as saying in the interview published on Thursday.
A group of about 20 suspects were also detained on Wednesday in a police operation in Izmir, western Turkey.
Anadolu said the suspects are from the largely Muslim Russian republic of Dagestan, as well as members of China's Muslim Uighur minority and from Syria.
They are thought to have lived with the gunman in an alleged IS cell house in the central Turkish city of Konya, the agency reported. About 20 children who were with the detainees were also taken to a police station.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report. (**)