Tunisia admits deadly blast resulted from 'criminal' act

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

TUNIS, Tunisia -- A gas truck explosion outside the oldest synagogue in Africa was a deliberate criminal attack -- not an accident -- the Tunisian government has acknowledged.

The statement Monday came a day after Germany's interior minister, visiting Tunisia to check up on the investigation, said his country was "100 percent" convinced the April 11 incident was a terrorist attack. The blast killed 16 people, 11 of them German tourists.

Germany has raised the possibility Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network was behind the explosion at the 2,000-year-old Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. If confirmed, it would be the first completed terror attack by al-Qaida since Sept. 11.

Tunisia had insisted until Monday that the explosion was an accident, but now says it was "a premeditated criminal act."

'Technical proof'

It said the blast was carried out by a Tunisian citizen, Nizar Naouar, and an accomplice who also lived in the North African country. Naouar is believed to have died in the blast, said German Interior Minister Otto Schily.

Schily said there is "technical proof" that the explosion was deliberate, citing how the gas tanks were mounted on the truck, the substance they contained and how the blast took place.

In an interview broadcast on German television Monday, Schily said an arrest had been made in connection with the explosion. While Schily declined to give details, ZDF television said the arrest was made in Tunisia.

German federal prosecutors declined to comment on the report and officials at Schily's ministry did not return calls. A Tunisian official declined to comment, but said he was looking into the matter.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Naouar's brother, Walid, who lives near Lyon, France, said Tuesday that his uncle, Belgasem Naouar, was arrested soon after the synagogue attack.

French authorities said Friday they had arrested Walid Naouar in Lyon, in southwestern France, on an immigration violation. He was later released.

Last week, the London-based pan-Arab dailies Al-Quds Al-Arabi and Al Hayat said they had received a claim of responsibility from a group calling itself the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites.

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