EU, US ‘shocked’ by killing of Russian ambassador in Turkey

Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov before the attack. [Anadolou]

Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was shot in the back and killed as he gave a speech at an Ankara art gallery yesterday (19 December) by an off-duty police officer who shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo” and “Allahu Akbar” as he opened fire.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a video message to the nation, cast the attack as an attempt to undermine NATO-member Turkey’s relations with Russia – ties long tested by the war in Syria. He said he had agreed in a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin to step up cooperation in fighting terrorism.

At a special meeting at the Kremlin, Putin ordered increased security at all Russian missions and said “the bandits” who committed the act would feel retribution.

“We must know who directed the killer’s hand.”

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini sent a message to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with the following text:

“I was deeply shocked to hear of the inconceivable attack against Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara this afternoon. Our fullest sympathies are with his family, all his colleagues, and the Russian authorities. The European Union condemns in the strongest possible manner this attack against your country’s representative in Turkey. We wish to express our solidarity with Russia in the face of this criminal act of violence.”

Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said in a video message he knew Karlov well as a colleague from the Moscow diplomatic academy.

“I don’t want to speak about all the difficulties to work with this country [Turkey], especially those that developed in the last years […] What happened is incompatible with logic, with international law, with morale. Our partners in the EU found the right words, mentioning solidarity with Russia at such time. It’s only regrettable that this expression of solidarity in our common fight against terrorism has taken place on such a sad occasion”, Chizhov said.

The assassination of an ambassador, not least of a major power such as Russia, marks a dangerous escalation of tension in the region and beyond. Security sources said the assassin was off duty and some witnesses said there was no security scanning machine at the entrance.

The attacker was smartly dressed in black suit and tie and stood, alone, behind the ambassador as he began his speech at the art exhibition, a person at the scene told Reuters.

“He took out his gun and shot the ambassador from behind. We saw him lying on the floor and then we ran out,” said the witness, who asked not to be identified. People took refuge in adjoining rooms as the shooting continued.

A video showed the attacker shouting: “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” and “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) as screams rang out. He paced about and shouted as he held the gun in one hand and waved the other in the air.

Russia is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its air strikes helped Syrian forces end rebel resistance last week in the northern city of Aleppo. Turkey, which wants Assad out, has been repairing ties with Moscow after shooting down a Russian warplane over Syria last year.

The gunman was killed by special forces. Three other people were injured.

“We regard this as a terrorist act,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. “Terrorism will not win and we will fight against it decisively.”

Gülen

Erdoğan, who has faced a string of attacks by Islamist and Kurdish militants as well as an attempted coup in July, identified the attacker as 22-year-old Mevlüt Mert Altintas, who had worked for Ankara’s riot police for two and a half years. CNN Turk TV said police had detained his sister and mother.

A senior security official said there were “very strong signs” the gunman belonged to the network of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara says orchestrated the failed coup in July. Erdoğan has denounced Gülen as a terrorist, but the cleric, a former ally, denies the accusation.

Gülen described the killing as a “heinous act of terror” that pointed to a deterioration of security in Turkey resulting from Erdoğan’s wide-ranging purge of police as well as the army, judiciary and media following the coup bid.

The government says Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania since 1999, created a “parallel network” in the police, military, judiciary and civil service aimed at overthrowing the state.

Suspicion could also fall on a group such as Islamic State, which has carried out a string of bomb attacks in Turkey in the last year as Ankara has pressed a military campaign against the militants in Syria. The group has urged “lone” attacks in the West.

US State Department

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was due to meet his Russian and Iranian counterparts in Russia today (20 December) to discuss the situation in Syria. Officials said the meeting would still go on, despite the attack.

“The attack comes at a bad time: Moscow and Ankara have only recently restored diplomatic ties after Turkey downed a Russian aircraft in November 2015,” the Stratfor think-tank said.

“Though the attack will strain relations between the two countries, it is not likely to rupture them altogether.”

However, both Russia and Turkey indicated that they were looking to work together to find the combat militant attacks.

The US State Department, involved in diplomatic contacts with Russia in an attempt to resolve a refugee crisis unfolding around the city of Aleppo, condemned the attack, as did the United Nations Security Council.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks as Russian-backed Syrian forces have fought for control of the eastern part of Aleppo, triggering a stream of refugees.

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