20 killed, over 250 injured in Turkish synagogue blasts

Small group takes credit, but government blames `international terrorists'

November 16, 2003|By Amberin Zaman and Tracy Wilkinson | Amberin Zaman and Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Simultaneous car bombs tore into two crowded synagogues during Shabbat prayers yesterday morning, killing at least 20 people and laying waste to neighborhoods where Jews have lived easily for generations among Turkey's Muslim majority.

More than 250 people were injured, many critically, officials said.

The Turkish government quickly blamed "international terrorists" for the devastating attack, the latest in a string of bombings of civilian targets in Muslim countries.

One bomb detonated outside the Neve Shalom synagogue, the city's largest, as congregants celebrated a bar mitzvah. The second blast did heavy damage to the new Beth Israel synagogue in the affluent district of Sisli, three miles away.

Most victims appeared to have been people struck down outside the highly guarded synagogues, But numerous bloodied, burned worshipers were pulled from inside one of the synagogues, and officials with the Jewish Agency identified five Jews among the dead.

"I was praying when suddenly there was an explosion under us, and all the windows blew open, and I was left standing in shock in the middle of a great cloud of heavy smoke," the chief rabbi of Turkey, Yitzhak Haleva, told Israeli radio.

His son was among the wounded at Beth Israel and was undergoing an operation in a local hospital, he said.

The dead included a Turkish police officer and a security guard posted at one synagogue, Turkish officials said.

It was not immediately clear whether the explosions were the work of suicide bombers or were activated by remote control or a timing device. But footage from security cameras showed a red Fiat being parked in front of Neve Shalom and the driver walking away before the vehicle exploded, according to the Turkish Anatolia news agency, which attributed the information to police.

A small group immediately claimed responsibility, though officials were uncertain whether to take the claim seriously.

But Islamic fundamentalist groups associated with al-Qaida have threatened to attack Jewish and Western targets anywhere, and especially in countries seen as supportive of the United States, as Turkey is.

The apparently coordinated bombings and the extent of damage echoed recent attacks attributed to al-Qaida-related groups in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and elsewhere. Jewish sites were targeted in attacks blamed on al-Qaida associates in May in Casablanca, Morocco, in Kenya last November and in Tunisia in April last year.

"It is clear that this is a terrorist event with international links," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Turkish television.

The toll of dead and wounded rose steadily through the day. The Istanbul Health directorate said at least 20 people were killed, and 257 were wounded.

"Obviously, an act of this scale suggests an organization [outside] Turkey," Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said as he arrived to inspect the destruction. "We are considering every organization, both internal and international."

Turkey is a Muslim country, and the government is led by an Islamic party, but it remains strictly secular and has unusually good relations with Israel, including strong military ties. It is one of the few countries in the region where Israelis feel comfortable vacationing and where they go in droves, with Israeli travel agencies offering regular charter flights.

At the official level, Turkey prides itself on generally peaceful coexistence of its Muslim majority and its 25,000-strong Jewish community.

Jews flocked to the then-Ottoman Empire after expulsion from Spain and other parts of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Turkey was the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel after its founding in 1948.

A member of NATO, Turkey is also a close ally of the United States. Although bilateral relations have been strained recently, Turkey supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and offered to send troops to postwar Iraq. Those plans have been abandoned, however, in large part because of opposition from the Iraqis.

Turkey's private NTV television quoted police as saying they had intelligence recently that al-Qaida may have been preparing attacks in Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Muslim, condemned the bombings as "an attack against ... humanity."

"This is a bomb aimed at the stability and peace in the Turkish Republic," he said in Cyprus, where he was on an official visit.

Israel, which was sending a team to Turkey to help, condemned the blasts as "criminal terror attacks."

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Daniel Shek said his country empathized with the victims in Istanbul, experiencing "a feeling we know all too well."

"The important thing is that no country is immune to terrorism," he said.

Referring to intelligence sources, Israeli media said the attacks were probably carried out by al-Qaida or an affiliated Islamic group.

In Istanbul, Ivo Molinas, a spokesman for the Istanbul rabbinate, said Turkey was being punished for its friendliness to Jews and to Israel.

"There are two reasons why this attack took place," he said. "One is to kill as many Jews as possible. The other is to show the government of Turkey that if you have good relations with Israel this is what will happen."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

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