Investigators search for motive in consulate attack

U.S. and Turkish investigators worked urgently Wednesday to determine the motive and affiliation of gunmen who attacked the U.S. Consulate here, leaving three Turkish police officers and three assailants dead in a hail of bullets.

Turkish news reports cited police sources as saying al-Qaida was suspected in the attack, the most serious assault on a foreign diplomatic mission in Turkey in five years. But there was no immediate confirmation of the report or claim of responsibility.

Police identified the dead assailants as Turkish nationals.

No consulate personnel were killed or injured in the shooting, which occurred shortly before 11 a.m. local time in the Istanbul district of Istinye, about a 20-minute drive north from the city center. The consulate had moved out of downtown Istanbul for security reasons after al-Qaida militants in 2003 attacked the British Consulate, a bank office and a synagogue, killing more than 60 people.

Prior to that, the U.S. Consulate, like other foreign missions, had been located near the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi.

U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson told reporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara, that the attack was an “obvious act of terrorism.”

He praised the response of Turkish police and said the United States was cooperating closely with authorities in the investigation.

Tight security around U.S. diplomatic installations in Turkey was stepped up in the wake of the shooting, Wilson said. Authorities were poring over footage from surveillance cameras to piece together the sequence of events.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul condemned the attack and pledged that his country would “fight against those who masterminded such acts and the mentality behind it until the end.”

NATO member Turkey and the U.S. are close allies, but opinion polls have consistently showed that a large majority of Turks actively dislike the regional policies of the Bush administration. The Iraq war generated an upsurge of anti-American sentiment in Turkey.

The country has on several occasions been the staging ground for attacks by a small but virulent Islamist movement. Other violent groups operating in Turkey include Kurdish insurgents and a loosely organized network of right-wing nationalists.

Within moments of Wednesday's shooting, Turkish police sealed off the area around the fortress-like consulate complex, which is set on a hill overlooking the Bosporus Strait. Officials at the scene, including Istanbul's governor, said a light-colored car was seen dropping off the three gunmen close to the entrance of the consulate's visa section. Turkish traffic police quickly spotted the men and the exchange of gunfire broke out, witnesses said.

The driver of the car escaped and was the target of an intense hunt. Interior Minister Besir Atalay said the fugitive might have been wounded in the shooting.

In addition to the three officers killed, two other people were wounded, authorities said. They were variously identified as two policemen, or an officer and a tow truck driver.

The gunfight created panic along the steep, winding street outside the consulate. People waiting in a line for visas outside the embassy scattered and ran. Patrons in a cafe across the street ducked for cover. Witnesses described an intense fusillade that went on for several minutes.