Car Bombs at Turkey Synagogues Kill 17
By JAMES C. HELICKE
Associated Press Writer
November 15, 2003, 8:28 AM EST
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Car bombs exploded outside two synagogues in Istanbul during Sabbath prayers Saturday, killing at least 17 people and wounding more than 215, officials said.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said there were "international connections" to the attacks, one of which blasted the city's largest synagogue, Neve Shalom, just as hundreds were gathered to celebrate a bar mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for a young man.
Police were investigating whether the al-Qaida terror network had any link to the bombings, private CNN-Turk television reported.
A huge crater and the twisted wreckage of a car was left in front of the Neve Shalom, as medical teams carried away bloodied and burned victims. The other blast collapsed the roof of the Beth Israel synagogue in the affluent district of Sisli, three miles away.
"There was huge panic, glass exploding and metal pieces all over the place," said Enver Eker, who witnessed the Neve Shalom blast. "We saw someone put a head in a cardboard box."
Health Minister Recep Akdag said 17 people were killed and 215 wounded in the two, nearly simultaneous blasts.
Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said police were investigating whether the attacks were a suicide bombing, or if the bombs were on timers or detonated by a remote control.
A militant Turkish Islamic group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a phone call to the semiofficial Anatolia news agency. But NTV television quoted police as saying that the attack was too sophisticated to be carried by that group -- a local and relatively small organization -- and that recent intelligence had indicated al-Qaida could be planning attacks in Turkey.
"It is obvious that this terrorist attack has some international connections," Gul said.
Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member and close ally of the United States, has long had military and political ties with Israel. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, in 1948.
In Israel, Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said, "This wasn't just an attack against Jews," Gissin said. "This is radical Islamic terrorism against humanity."
Turkey has also raised the ire of some in the Arab world by offering to send troops to Iraq to bolster U.S. troops. Iraqi leaders came out against any Turkish deployment and Ankara this month retracted its offer.
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.
In April 2002, a vehicle bombing struck a historic synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, killing 21 people, mostly foreign tourists, in an attack blamed on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Saturday's Istanbul bombings "an attack against humanity."
Parking was not allowed in front of the synagogues but intelligence sources said two slow moving pickup trucks could have been exploded while passing by, private NTV television said.
NTV television said a red car was seen parked just before the explosion in front of the Neve Shalom -- Hebrew for "oasis of peace."
The synagogue is the most important spiritual center for the 25,000-member Jewish community of predominantly Muslim Turkey.
"The houses and cars are completely destroyed, as if a huge earthquake hit the area," Sabri Yalim, the head of Istanbul's fire department, told NTV outside the Neve Shalom.
Edi Baruh, who runs a lighting shop near Neve Shalom, said his father in law was in the synagogue during the attack attending a bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony to celebrate the thirteenth birthday of a male. There were some 300 attendants, mostly women, Baruh said.
Yosef Halefa, son of head of Turkey's chief rabbi, Isac Haleva was injured during the attack at Neve Shalom, a community member said.
Around the Beth Israel synagogue, twisted metal, shattered windows and bricks filled the streets. "I threw myself on the floor and it got all dark," said Rifat Haifi, who was praying in Beth Israel at the time of the explosion. "Later, we got up and carried the wounded out."
The claim of responsibility came in an anonymous phone call to Anatolia. The caller said attacks would continue "to prevent the oppression against Muslims," the agency said.
The Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, also known as IBDA-C, has been accused in a bombing attack that injured 10 people in downtown Istanbul on Dec. 31, 2000. However, no one has claimed responsibility for that attack.
Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press