Car bombs hit two synagogues in Istanbul

Sunday, November 16, 2003

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Car bombs exploded nearly simultaneously outside two Istanbul synagogues filled with worshippers Saturday, killing at least 20 people and wounding more than 303. The government said the attack had international links, raising suspicions that the al-Qaida terror network was involved.

One of the blasts tore apart the facade of Neve Shalom -- Istanbul's biggest synagogue and the symbolic center of the 25,000-member Jewish community in this mostly Muslim nation.

Three miles away, the other blast hit the Beth Israel synagogue. Six Jews were killed at Beth Israel and many injured, incuding Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva and his son. Fourteen Muslims were also killed -- including two security guards at Beth Israel and one at Neve Shalom.

The bombings targeted a secular-minded, Muslim nation that is a close ally of the United States and has strong military and economic ties with Israel.

Turkish Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said police were investigating whether the blasts were set off by suicide bombers, a timer or remote control. Footage from the synagogues' security camera showed a driver parking a red Fiat in front of Neve Shalom, then getting out and walking away from the car before it exploded, police told the semi-official Anatolia News Agency.

A local Turkish militant group reportedly claimed responsibility for the blast. But police said the attack was too sophisticated for such a small group and said they were looking into al-Qaida links.

"It is obvious that this terrorist attack has some international connections," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said.

Israel sent a police forensics team to help the Turkish investigation. "This wasn't just an attack against Jews," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "This is radical Islamic terrorism against humanity."

A senior Israeli government source said the attack must have been at least coordinated with international terror organizations. The operation suggests the bombs "were the making of al-Qaida or Hezbollah," the Lebanese guerrilla movement backed by Syria and Iran, the source said on condition of anonymity.

Israel Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was headed to Turkey on Sunday to visit the two synagogues. The two nations have developed warm relations in the past decade -- the Israeli air force regularly trains over Turkish airspace and the countries' intelligence services share sensitive information about military developments in Syria and Iran and Islamic militant groups.

Al-Qaida is suspected in an April 2002 vehicle bombing at a historic synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba that killed 21 people, mostly foreign tourists.

President Bush condemned Saturday's attack in the "strongest terms," saying its choice of targets "reminds us that our enemy in the war against terror is without conscience or faith."

Turkey has also raised the ire of some in the Arab world by offering to send troops to Iraq to bolster U.S. troops. On Oct. 14, a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, killing the driver and a bystander and wounding at least 13

Iraqi leaders came out against any Turkish deployment and Ankara this month retracted its offer.

Police put the casualty toll at 20 dead and 303 wounded. A crater as deep as a person was punched into the pavement outside Neve Shalom. The streets outside each synagogue were covered with charred debris and shattered cars, as medical teams carried and helped away bloodied and burned victims.

Six Jews were killed -- all at Beth Israel -- and up to 80 of the wounded were Jewish. Most of the victims were passers-by in residents in the neighborhoods of narrow streets and closely-build apartment buildings where many Christian Greeks and Armenians live alongside Muslims. A mosque just a few doors down from Neve Shalom -- which in Hebrew means "oasis of peace" -- also had its windows blown out.

"Muslim, Christian, Jewish, people are people. Today it's them, tomorrow it could be me," said Ismail Yilmaz, a shopkeeper looking for his missing employee Rami Kucuk.

The blast went off outside Neve Shalom just as honored guests had finished reading a traditional prayer during a bar mitzvah -- the coming-of-age ceremony for a boy's 13th birthday. The boy survived.

Security has been tight at Neve Shalom since a 1986 attack when gunmen killed 22 worshippers and wounded six during a Sabbath service. That attack was blamed on the radical Palestinian militant Abu Nidal. The Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah carried out a bomb attack against the synagogue in 1992, but no one was injured.

The other blast collaped Beth Israel's roof.

"We were in the middle of prayers, suddenly there was a big explosion," chief rabbi Isak Haleva said. "All of the windows were shattered. I found myself in shock, amid a great cloud of smoke."

"To do something like this when people are praying -- this is truly beyond the pale of human conduct, even animals don't commit evil like this," he told Israel Radio.

A militant Turkish Islamic group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a phone call to the Anatolia News Agency.

The Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, also known as IBDA-C, which told Anatolia attacks would continue "to prevent the opposition against Muslims," has been accused in a bombing that injured 10 people in Istanbul on Dec. 31, 2000.

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