Russia’s ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead at an art gallery in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The gunman has been identified as a 22-year-old Turkish riot police officer, who was shot dead minutes later.
Andrei Karlov was attending the opening of an exhibit at a contemporary arts centre when he was attacked. He was several minutes into a speech when the man, dressed in a suit and tie and standing calmly behind the ambassador, pulled out a pistol, shouted, then fired at least eight shots.
After firing, the killer shouted in Turkish: “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria. Unless our towns are secure, you won’t enjoy security. Only death can take me from here. Everyone who is involved in this suffering will pay a price.”
He also shouted in Arabic: “We are the one who pledged allegiance to Muhammad, to wage jihad.”
Local media, citing security guards at the scene, said the killer showed a police ID to enter the gallery. The pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper claimed he was in the Ankara riot police.
Turkish special forces quickly surrounded the gallery and killed the attacker.
Karlov had been part of discussions between Russia and Turkey that led to an evacuation of east Aleppo getting under way late last week. He had also been a central conduit to the thawing of diplomatic relations between the two countries in April.
But the killing throws into doubt the deal behind the continuing evacuation of civilians in besieged east Aleppo.
In recent days, there have been regular protests against Russian involvement in Syria, many in front of the Russian consulate on İstanbul’s famed İstiklal Ave. The protests have often had a significant Islamist contingent.
Karlov was a veteran diplomat who had spent much of his career in Moscow and took up the job in 2013.
He had served as Moscow’s ambassador to North Korea and as head of the consular department at Russia’s foreign ministry, overseeing the work of 236 Russian missions in 146 countries.
His ministry profile notes he spoke English and Korean fluently. He was 62 and was married with a son.
His stint in Ankara coincided with a tumultuous period for relations between presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Relations went into a freeze after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane on the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015.
Largely thanks to Karlov, relations normalised with surprising speed after Turkey apologised for the incident. Putin and Erdoğan met in August and formed what appears to resemble a loose anti-western alliance, although they remains at odds over Syria. Russia supports president Bashar al-Assad and his regime; Turkey follows the western line and supports his opponents.
Meanwhile in Aleppo, thousands of civilians have been evacuated and thousands more are preparing to leave under a truce deal.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 5000 civilians left the besieged districts in 75 buses yesterday.
Another 25 buses were ready to take more people to the rebel-held town of Rashideen west of the city.
“These were the worst days we endured,” said Abu Jaafar, a doctor who left the city yesterday. “This week was terrible, people were in the streets, and most of the houses they lived in had been destroyed.
“When people were ready to be evacuated they stood in their tens of thousands in a square in the harsh cold, many of them children and women. There was nothing of the basics of life – little food, warmth and no shelter. All you heard was the screams and tears of children.”
Among those rescued was Bana al-Abed, a 7-year-old girl whose tweets about life in east Aleppo captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, including JK Rowling.
Humanitarian workers published images showing a smiling Bana on their shoulders, wearing a winter jacket and woollen head cover.
Her tweets had drawn attention to the suffering of east Aleppo’s residents, and there were fears that she might be killed or fall into the hands of government forces.
Today, the UN security council unanimously passed a resolution to deploy international observers to the city. The evacuation has so far been supervised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.