, Istanbul, Turkey, Dec 19 – Russia’s ambassador to Ankara was shot dead in a brazen attack by an off-duty Turkish policeman at an art exhibition on Monday in what both sides branded an “act of terror” aimed at damaging their improving ties.
The assassination, by a lone gunman shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “Don’t forget Aleppo”, came after days of protests in Turkey over Russia’s role in Syria and on the eve of a meeting of the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran on the conflict.
Here is what we know so far:
– The attack –
Dramatic footage showed the moment the assailant — dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, shot his target in the back as the envoy spoke at the opening of the Russian photography exhibition shortly after 7 pm (1600 GMT).
The gunman was seen standing behind the ambassador and after opening fire he swaggered and pointed his automatic handgun aggressively into the air.
He shouted “Allahu Akbar” and spoke in Arabic about pledging allegiance to jihad.
He then switched to Turkish, shouting: “Don’t forget about Syria, don’t forget about Aleppo. All those who participate in this tyranny will be held accountable.”
The gunman was killed in a police operation after a 15-minute standoff when he refused to surrender.
It later emerged that the gunman had fired nine shots into the envoy’s back.
– The policeman –
Turkish authorities identified the attacker as 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, who had worked in the Ankara anti-riot police squad for the last two-and-a-half years.
He was off-duty but managed to get through the security controls by flashing his police identity card and he did not go through the metal detector security check.
According to the Hurriyet daily, Altintas had stayed at a nearby hotel to prepare for the attack, shaving and putting on a smart suit.
Six people have been detained over the Karlov assassination, including Altintas’s sister, mother, father and uncle.
Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek and pro-government press speculated the policeman may be linked to the group of exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the July coup aimed at toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish media reports said police are questioning former acquaintances to see if Altintas was sympathetic towards Gulen.
Gulen himself issued a statement firmly condemning the attack.
– The target –
The slain ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was a veteran career diplomat who helped weather rocky ties between Moscow and Ankara.
The 62-year-old was appointed to Ankara in 2013, a time when the two countries were seeking to boost trade despite deep differences over the Syria conflict.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described his killing as a “tragic day in the history of our country and our diplomatic service”.
The married father of one spent a large chunk of his career — which stretched back to the Soviet period — working on the volatile Korean peninsula, in both Seoul and Pyongyang.
His body was flown back to Moscow Tuesday in a coffin draped in the Russian flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his secret services to boost security at home and abroad after the killing and the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
Karlov was the first ambassador to be assassinated in the history of modern Turkey. The British consul was killed in an Istanbul bombing in 2003 and Israel’s consul general in Istanbul was kidnapped and shot dead by leftist militants in 1971.
– The timing –
The shooting came on the eve of a meeting between the Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers on the Syrian conflict which nevertheless went ahead Tuesday.
At the very moment of the attack, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was on a plane flying to Moscow for the talks.
Protesters in Turkey have held Moscow responsible for rights violations in war-wracked Aleppo, with thousands massing outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul.
Moscow and Ankara remain on opposite sides of the conflict — with Turkey backing rebels trying to topple Russia’s ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Diplomatic relations between Ankara and Moscow sank to their worst levels since the Cold War in November last year when a Turkish jet shot down a Russian war plane over Syria.
But relations have since warmed, with intense contacts in recent days that led to a complex deal for evacuations from Aleppo that will allow the regime to take full control.
Erdogan swiftly called Putin and both countries described the killing as a “provocation”, insisting it would not be allowed to cast a shadow over ties.
And at Tuesday’s meeting, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to guarantee Syria peace talks and backed expanding a ceasefire in the war-torn country.