ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Three Turkish policemen and three gunmen were killed in an attack on the United States consulate in Istanbul on Wednesday, the city's governor said.
Witnesses told Reuters four attackers drove a car up to the high-walled compound situated to the north of Istanbul city centre and overlooking the Bosphorus waterway. Three jumped out as the car halted and began firing at police at a guard post.
The attack coincides with political tensions in Turkey. The ruling party is in a legal fight to avert closure over charges of anti-secular activities and police are probing a shadowy far-right group suspected of plotting a military coup.
Governor Muammer Guler said one of the police officers died at the scene in a gunbattle lasting several minutes at 11:00 am (4 a.m. EDT), a time of day when many Turks go there to apply for visas. Two had died of their wounds at a nearby hospital.
Two other people were also slightly injured.
Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk cited police sources saying the three gunmen from east Turkey were suspected of being members of al Qaeda. It also said two people were later detained in Istanbul, one of them a brother of one of the dead assailants.
Two of the dead assailants had criminal records, Interior Minister Besir Atalay was quoted as saying by the state Anatolian news agency.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he could neither rule out nor support suspicions al Qaeda was behind the attack, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility. Turkey and the United States both condemned it.
"We very much appreciate what was clearly a very rapid and proper response from the government to try to deal with the security situation in front of our consulate," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on her plane to Sofia.
The U.S. ambassador in Ankara Ross Wilson told a news conference: "It is an obvious act of terrorism."
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he was "greatly saddened by the martyrdom of our three police officers in a terrorist attack".
Television images showed four bodies lying on the ground around the police post at the consulate's gates, with paramedics carrying out heart massage on one man. The shirt of another was ripped open. Blood was flowing from the head of a third.
"They (the assailants) were four people. Three of them got out of the car and fired at the police. I saw them dead afterwards lying on the ground and many more dead among the police," Enis Yilmaz, who was going to the consulate to get a visa, told Reuters. He said the fourth man drove off.
"We saw four people in a car, they were wearing coats and that seemed pretty weird in this weather. Then we saw they had guns," Muhammet Nur, 15, told Reuters.
"At first we thought they might be civil police but at that moment they drew their guns and a gun battle began," said Nur, who saw the gunbattle from a nearby cafe.
Istanbul governor Guler said the three dead gunmen were Turkish citizens, believed to be aged 25-30. Police were searching for a man suspected of driving the car.
Mutlu Gunes, a 13-year-old eyewitness, told reporters he was on his way to a mosque when he spotted several men preparing guns and placing them inside a Ford Focus car, before driving a short distance to the modern consulate complex.
"The three of them got out of the car. One of them shot a policeman in the chest and I saw one terrorist killing himself after being shot by police. Then I hid under a car," he said.
Turkey has seen armed attacks from a variety of groups over the years, including Maoists, Trotskyites, Kurdish separatists and Islamist militants.
The U.S. consulate was moved to a high-security location in 2003 as major consulates and embassies stepped up security following the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York.
The most serious attacks in Turkey were in November, 2003, when 62 people were killed by Islamist militants targeting two synagogues, a bank and the British consulate.
Four people were killed and 15 wounded in an explosion in Istanbul in June 2004, before U.S. President George W. Bush visited the city. here
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; writing by Paul de Bendern; editing by Sami Aboudi)