Ankara (AFP) – A team of Russian investigators arrived in Ankara on Tuesday to uncover how an off-duty policeman assassinated Moscow’s ambassador in an art gallery, as Turkey made its first arrests over the murder.
Veteran diplomat Andrei Karlov was shot four times in the back by Turkish policeman Mevlut Mert Altintas, 22, in a brazen attack as he opened an exhibition of Russian photography on Monday.
The killing stunned Ankara and Moscow, which have rowed repeatedly over the Syria conflict but in recent weeks have begun cooperating closely on the evacuations from war-wrecked Aleppo.
An unprecedented three-way meeting on Syria between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran in Moscow was going ahead Tuesday despite the assassination.
Adding to the jitters in a country already on high alert after a string of deadly attacks, an individual also fired outside the US embassy in Ankara overnight in a separate incident.
‘Carrying police ID’
“We have to know who directed the hand of the killer,” Russian President Vladimir Putin declared, and agreed with Turkish opposite number Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an unprecedented move to send a Russian investigative team to the scene.
Welcoming Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at the start of the Syria talks in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed the team had arrived in Ankara.
“This tragedy forces all of us to fight more decisively against terrorism,” Lavrov told Cavusoglu.
Dramatic images showed Karlov stumble and then crash to the ground on his back as Altintas brandished his gun at terrified onlookers who cowered behind cocktail tables at the Ankara gallery.
The gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) and said all those responsible for what has happened in Syria and Aleppo would be held accountable.
Altintas had set off the metal detector security check when he entered the exhibition in central Ankara as he was carrying a gun, the pro-government Sabah daily said.
But after showing his police ID, he was waved through.
The Hurriyet daily said Altintas, who had worked for Ankara’s anti-riot police for the last two-and-a-half years, had stayed at a nearby hotel to prepare for the attack, shaving and putting on a smart suit.
He was killed by police after a 15-minute standoff.
Altintas was born in the town of Soke in the Aegean region of western Turkey and attended a special school for training future policemen.
Six people have been detained over the attack, including the sister, mother, father and uncle of Altintas, Turkish media said.
Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, known for his outspoken comments, speculated on Twitter that the gunman may be linked to the group of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the July coup aimed at toppling Erdogan.
His suggestion was repeated in the pro-government press, which claimed what Ankara terms the Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO) was behind the assassination.
“An attack on friendship by treacherous FETO,” said Sabah. “A bullet from FETO,” added the Star daily.
Gulen, who denies having any link to the failed coup, issued a statement condemning “in the strongest terms this heinous act of terror.”
‘Relations won’t suffer’
Hours after the assassination, an individual fired outside the main gate of the US embassy in Ankara.
The mission said in a statement that no-one was hurt and the individual was detained but the embassy and consulates in Istanbul and Adana were closed for normal operations.
Karlov’s body was in an Ankara morgue and would be flown back to Moscow afer a ceremony at Ankara airport, Turkish media reports said.
Cavusoglu announced in Moscow that the street where the embassy is located would be named after the 62-year-old envoy.
The killing came after days of protests in Turkey over Russia’s role in Syria, although Moscow and Ankara are now working closely together to evacuate citizens from the battered city of Aleppo.
Turkey and Russia stand on opposite sides of the conflict, with Ankara backing rebels trying to topple Moscow’s ally President Bashar al-Assad.
But the rhetoric has warmed considerably since a reconciliation deal was signed earlier this year and the tripartite meeting Tuesday is just the latest in a series of contacts.
Despite Moscow’s outrage, commentators have suggested the murder will bring the two nations closer as they stand side-by-side in a “war on terror.”
“This was a terrible tragedy, but interstate relations overall will not suffer from this,” the head of Russia’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, Leonid Slutsky told Izvestia.
Karlov was a career diplomat who began his career under the USSR in 1976 and was notably Russia’s ambassador to North Korea from 2001-2006. He served in Turkey from 2013.