ANKARA: A Turkish policeman crying “Aleppo” and “revenge” shot dead Russia’s ambassador to Turkey at an art exhibition in Ankara on Monday, in what Moscow said was a “terrorist act”.
The Russian foreign ministry confirmed the death of envoy Andrei Karlov, which marked one of the most serious spillovers of the Syria conflict.
Andrei Karlov died of his wounds after the shooting, which occurred on the eve of a key meeting between the Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers on the Syria conflict.
Dramatic television footage showed a man in a dark suit and tie waving a gun and gesturing in the air at the Ankara exhibition hall.
Ambassador Andrei Karlov made a speech at the opening of a photographic exhibition. Hurriyet newspaper said Turkish special forces had surrounded the building. NTV said three other people were wounded.
Pictures of the ambassador right before he was shot. pic.twitter.com/B5k8foVCjp
— Gilgo (@agirecudi) December 19, 2016
“Today in Ankara as a result of an attack the Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov received wounds that he died from,” Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in televised comments.
“We qualify what happened as a terrorist act.”
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had been informed of the attack.
A Reuters witness said that while gunfire rang out for some time after the attack, it had now stopped. A Hurriyet newspaper reporter said the attacker chanted slogans.
A photograph posted on Twitter showed a man in a black suit holding a pistol, standing close to a podium in the gallery, its walls hung with pictures. Four people including what appeared to be the ambassador lay on the floor.
The shooting took place at the Cagdas Sanatlar Merkezi, a major art exhibition hall in the Cankaya district of Ankara where most foreign embassies are located including Russia’s mission.
“It happened during the opening of an exhibition,” Hurriyet correspondent Hasim Kilic, who was at the scene, told AFP.
“When the ambassador was delivering a speech, a tall man wearing a suit, fired into the air first and then took aim at the ambassador,” said Kilic.
“He said something about Aleppo and ‘revenge’. He ordered the civilians to leave the room. When people were fleeing, he fired again,” he added.
Protesters in Turkey have held Moscow responsible for human rights violations in Aleppo.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was at the scene to supervise a police operation, Turkish television said.
US condemns attack
The United States moved quickly to condemn the gun attack.
“We condemn this act of violence, whatever its source. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
The US spokesman did not suggest who might have been behind the attack, which witnesses said was carried out by a gunman demanding “revenge” for Aleppo.
Russian forces were instrumental in helping government troops recapture the city of Aleppo from rebel forces in Turkey’s neighbour Syria last week.
Washington has previously warned Moscow that its support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime risks radicalizing moderate rebels and boosting support for extremists.
Syria denounces ‘despicable’ crime
Syria too condemned the murder of the ambassador of its key ally Russia as a “despicable crime”, state news agency SANA said, quoting the foreign ministry.
“The Syrian republic condemns in the strongest terms the cowardly terrorist attack that led to the death of the Russian ambassador in Turkey, Andrei Karlov,” a ministry statement said.
“This despicable crime confirms once again the urgent need to expand all efforts and means to fight and eliminate terrorism,” it added.
Erdogan phones Putin
Turkish president Erdogan has phoned Russian president Putin to brief him over the gun attack that killed the Russian ambassador to Ankara, the Turkish presidency said.
“The president has spoken by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin to share information about tonight’s attack,” presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a statement.
“We will not allow this attack to cast a shadow on Turkey-Russia relations,” said the Turkish foreign ministry in a statement.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the killing of Andrei Karlov was “a terror attack on relations between Russia and Turkey”.
Russia and Turkey have been involved in conflict in Syria across the border from where over two million Syrian refugees have settled. Turkey has been a staunch opponent of President Bashar al-Assad while Russia has deployed troops and its air force in support of the Syrian leader.
Tensions have escalated in recent weeks as Russian-backed Syrian forces have fought for control of the eastern part of the city of Aleppo, triggering a stream of refugees.