Islamic State claims responsibility for Istanbul attack - statement

CAIRO, Jan 2 (Reuters) - Islamic State claimed responsibility on Monday for a New Year's Day mass shooting in a packed Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people, an attack carried out by a lone gunman who remains at large.

The jihadist group made the claim in a statement on one of its Telegram channels, a method it has used to claim attacks in the past. There was no immediate comment from Turkish officials.

"In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday," the statement said.

Photos from the scene:

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An ambulance arrives near a nightclub where a gun attack took place during a New Year party in Istanbul, Turkey, January 1, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
A Turkish police officers stands guard on the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish anti-riot police officers stand guard at the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
First aid officers carry an injured woman at the site of an armed attack on January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / IHLAS NEWS AGENCY / IHLAS NEWS AGENCY (Photo credit should read IHLAS NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images)
Police secure area near an Istanbul nightclub, Turkey, January 1, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
An ambulance arrives near a nightclub where a gun attack took place during a New Year party in Istanbul, Turkey, January 1, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
People flee as ambulances are on the attack site on January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / IHLAS NEWS AGENCY / IHLAS NEWS AGENCY (Photo credit should read IHLAS NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish special force police officers and ambulances are seen at the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish special force police officers and ambulances are seen at the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Police secure area near an Istanbul nightclub, Turkey, January 1, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 1: Relatives of the victimes gather neat the area at Ortakoy district near night club Reina on January 1, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin says at least 35 dead and 40 wounded at terror attack at Istanbul's famous night club of Reina in Bosphorus shores in the new year party. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
Turkish special force police officers and ambulances are seen at the site of an armed attack January 1, 2017 in Istanbul. At least two people were killed in an armed attack Saturday on an Istanbul nightclub where people were celebrating the New Year, Turkish television reports said. / AFP / YASIN AKGUL (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JANUARY 1: Turkish police secure the area at Ortakoy district near night club Reina on January 1, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul governor Vasip Sahin says at least 35 dead and 40 wounded at terror attack at Istanbul's famous night club of Reina in Bosphorus shores in the new year party. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
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NATO member Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State and launched an incursion into Syria in August to drive the radical Sunni militants from its borders.

The authorities believe the assailant may be from a Central Asian nation and suspect he had links to Islamic State, Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper said. Police distributed a hazy black-and-white photo of the alleged attacker taken from security footage.

The shooting at the Reina nightclub on the shores of Istanbul's Bosphorus waterway shook Turkey as it tries to recover from a failed July coup and a series of deadly bombings in cities including Istanbul and the capital Ankara, some blamed on Islamic State and others claimed by Kurdish militants.

Some people jumped into the Bosphorus to save themselves after the attacker began shooting at random just over an hour into the new year. Witnesses described diving under tables as he walked around spraying bullets from an automatic rifle.

Nationals of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, Israel, India, a Turkish-Belgian dual citizen and a Franco-Tunisian woman were among those killed, officials said. Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh said five of the dead were from Saudi Arabia.

Security services had been on alert across Europe for new year celebrations following an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin that killed 12 people. Only days ago, an online message from a pro-Islamic State group called for attacks by "lone wolves" on "celebrations, gatherings and clubs."

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Tolba; Editing by Giles Elgood and Ralph Boulton)

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