Russian ambassador to Turkey killed in 'terrorist act'

The Russian ambassador to Turkey was shot in the back and killed as he gave a speech at an Ankara art gallery on Monday by an off-duty police officer who shouted "Don't forget Aleppo" and "Allahu Akbar" as he opened fire.

The Russian foreign ministry confirmed the death of envoy Andrei Karlov, calling it a "terrorist act". Relations between Moscow and Ankara have long been strained over the conflict in Syria, with the two support opposing sides in the war.

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 seeks Assad's ouster, has been repairing ties with Moscow after shooting down a Russian warplane over Syria last year.

RELATED: Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov killed in art gallery shooting

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Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov killed in art gallery shooting
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Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov killed in art gallery shooting
FILE PHOTO - Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov accompanies Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen), who disembarks from the Presidential aircraft at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (front C) poses with Russia's Ambassador to North Korea Andrei Gennadiyevich Karlov (front R) and other embassy members during a photo session at the Russian embassy in Pyongyang March 8, 2005, in this photo released in Tokyo March 11, 2005. Kim visited the Russian Embassy on Tuesday to receive a medal, presented to him on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Korea Central News Agency reported on Tuesday. JAPAN OUT REUTERS/Korea News Service IK/CN
FILE PHOTO: Andrei Gennadiyevich Karlov poses during a photo session at the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 8, 2005, in this photo released in Tokyo March 11, 2005. JAPAN OUT REUTERS/Korea News Service/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ANKARA, TURKEY - (ARCHIVE) : A file photo dated November 30, 2016 shows Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov (C) during an exclusive interview in Ankara, Turkey. Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov has been shot multiple times at an exhibition in Ankara on December 19, 2016. Karlov was delivering a speech at the opening ceremony of a photo exhibit when an armed assailant opened fire on him. The envoy was seriously wounded and was taken to hospital immediately. (Photo by Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An ambulance leaves the area near an art gallery where the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was shot in Ankara, Turkey, December 19, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
ANKARA, TURKEY - DECEMBER 19: Turkish police secure the area outside where the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was shot inside an art gallery on December 19, 2016, Turkey in Ankara. Russian foreign ministry confirmed the death of envoy Andrei Karlov in the attack at the gallery in the Turkish capital on Monday by a gunman shouting 'Don't forget Aleppo! Don't forget Syria'. (Photo by Erhan Ortac/Getty Images)
Pictured in this file image dated December 1, 2016 are Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russia's Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov at a meeting of the Russian-Turkish Joint Strategic Planning Group (JSPG) at the Rubi Platinum Hote in Alanya, Turkey. File Photo/Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - DECEMBER 19: Signs direct traffic as Turkish police secure the area outside where the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was shot inside an art gallery on December 19, 2016, Turkey in Ankara. Russian foreign ministry confirmed the death of envoy Andrei Karlov in the attack at the gallery in the Turkish capital on Monday by a gunman shouting 'Don't forget Aleppo! Don't forget Syria'. (Photo by Erhan Ortac/Getty Images)
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The Ankara mayor said on Twitter the gunman as a 22-year-old police officer. Two security sources told Reuters he was not on duty at the time.

The attacker was smartly dressed in black suit and tie and stood, alone, behind the ambassador as he made a 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.

A Reuters cameraman at the scene said gunfire rang out for some time after the attack. Turkey's Anadolu news agency said the gunman had been "neutralized", apparently killed.

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ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: People react at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving 30 people dead and 126 others injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: People react at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving 30 people dead and 126 others injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Ercin Top/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: (EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) victims at the blast scene after an explosion during a peace march in Ankara, October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. At least 30 people have been killed and 130 people wounded in twin explosions outside the main train station in the Turkish capital Ankara where people were gathering for a peace march. (Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: A wounded man lays on the ground at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving 30 people dead and 126 others injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An injured woman is comforted following an explosion at the main train station in Turkey's capital Ankara, on October 10, 2015. At least 30 people were killed and 126 were injured in the explosion which happened ahead of an anti-government peace rally organised by leftist groups later in the day, including the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: People are seen at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving 30 people dead and 126 injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Binnur Ege Gurun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: Dead bodies of the victims lay on the ground at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving 30 people dead and 126 injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Binnur Ege Gurun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: A woman rat the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving 30 people dead and 126 injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Binnur Ege Gurun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: People are seen at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving dozens of people dead and injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Ercin Top/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An injured person is caried away following a blast at a peace rally in Ankara on October 10, 2015. At least 30 people were feared dead in twin explosions in Turkey's capital Ankara, targeting activists gathering for a peace rally organised by leftist and pro-Kurdish groups. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: People carry a wounded person at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving dozens of people dead and injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Serhan Bascuhadar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: A view of the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving dozens of people dead and injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: A woman reacts at the site of an explosion close to Ankara's main train station on October 10, 2015 in Ankara, Turkey. An explosion hit Ankara train station Saturday morning leaving dozens of people dead and injured, as many people gathered outside the station for a peace demonstration to be held in nearby at Sihhiye Square. (Photo by Ege Gurun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People walk amongs the bodies of people killed in a blast at a peace rally in Ankara on October 10, 2015. At least 30 people were feared dead in twin explosions in Turkey's capital Ankara, targeting activists gathering for a peace rally organised by leftist and pro-Kurdish groups. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Another photograph showed four people the ambassador lying on the floor.

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

It was not clear whether the gunman was a lone operator, driven perhaps by popular discontent over Russian action in Syria or affiliated to a group like Islamic State, which has carried out a string of bomb attacks in Turkey in the last year.

Since a failed coup in July, President Tayyip Erdogan has been purging the police of supporters of an exiled cleric and former ally, Fethullah Gulen, whom he characterizes as the chief terrorist threat to Turkey.

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Erdogan contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin to brief him on the shooting, a Turkish official said. It was not immediately clear if Erdogan would release a statement later.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was due to meet with his Russian and Iranian counterparts in Russia on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Syria. Officials said the meeting would still go on, despite the attack.

Turkey's foreign ministry said it would not allow the attack to cast a shadow over Ankara's relations with Moscow.

"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."

The U.S. 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.

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.

Turkey has been hit by multiple bomb attacks that have been claimed by Kurdish militants, and beat back an attempted coup in July, where rogue soldiers commandeered tanks, warplanes and helicopters in attempt to overthrow the parliament.

Since then, the government has launched a sweeping crackdown on the judiciary, police and civil service in attempt to root out the coup plotters. The involvement of a police officer in Monday's attack could raise questions for Ereogan about a force denuded now of a number of senior and rank-and-file officers.

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