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16 November 2003

Los Angeles Times: Blasts Rock Synagogues in Turkey, Killing 20

Blasts Rock Synagogues in Turkey, Killing 20
The two car bombings in Istanbul also injure hundreds, most outside the targeted buildings.
By Amberin Zaman and Tracy Wilkinson
Special to The Times

November 16, 2003

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

More than 300 people were injured, many critically, officials said.

The government quickly blamed "international terrorists" for the 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 heavily damaged 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 tightly guarded synagogues, but numerous bloodied, burned worshipers were also pulled from inside one of the synagogues, and officials with one organization, 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, Isak Haleva, told Israeli radio.

His son was among those wounded at Beth Israel and was undergoing surgery in a local hospital, he said.

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

The twin blasts, coming within moments of each other, sheared facades from 19th-century buildings, shattered windows for miles and hurled people and debris into the air.

At the Neve Shalom Synagogue in the historic Galata district, the bomb left a mammoth crater in the street.

Inside, a visiting American rabbi was leading services when the bomb exploded. He was not hurt.

Gulen Hurley, a film producer who lives near the Neve Shalom Synagogue, heard the huge explosion, felt her building shake and then rushed to her balcony to see masses of bleeding victims and others running about in panic.

"At first I thought it was an earthquake," she said. Then she saw a wounded rabbi clamber onto the roof of the synagogue, lift his arms to the sky and scream: "We will not leave! We will not leave!"

It was not immediately clear whether the explosions were the work of suicide bombers or were activated by remote control or a timing device. Footage from security cameras showed a red Fiat being parked in front of Neve Shalom and the driver walking away before the vehicle exploded, reported the Turkish Anatolian news agency, citing police.

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

Islamic fundamentalist groups associated with the Al Qaeda terrorist network have threatened to attack Jewish and Western targets, especially in countries seen as supportive of the United States, as Turkey is.

Both the apparently coordinated bombings and the extent of damage echoed recent attacks attributed to Al Qaeda-linked groups in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and elsewhere. Jewish sites were targeted in attacks blamed on Al Qaeda associates in May in Casablanca, last November in Kenya and April 2002 in Tunisia.

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

The casualty toll rose steadily through the day. The Istanbul health directorate said at least 20 people were killed.

"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 predominantly 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 least at the official level, Turkey prides itself on the generally peaceful coexistence of its Muslim majority and its 27,000-strong Jewish community.

Jews flocked to Turkey, then the center of the 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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 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 Iraqi opposition.

Turkey's private NTV television quoted police as saying they had intelligence recently that Al Qaeda might have been preparing attacks in Turkey.

The Anatolian news agency reported receiving a telephone call from a person claiming to be from a radical Turkish group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, who took responsibility for the attack. The caller threatened "to prevent the oppression against Muslims," Anatolian said. Officials were evaluating the claim.

Lamp vendor Can Kurt, 49, whose shop is across the street from the Neve Shalom Synagogue, said he rushed outside after a deafening explosion filled the street with white smoke.

"The scene was horrific," he said. "Dismembered limbs, fingers, even ears were strewn across the street as bloodied people fled in panic, screaming in pain."

Huge shards of glass fell "from the sky" to slice people, he said, "like Judgment Day." Five of his friends were killed in the bombing, he said.

At the Sisli Etfal Hospital, not far from the Beth Israel Synagogue, scores of Turks queued to donate blood for the bomb victims.

"This is my way of helping in the war against terrorism," said Sefika Eroglu, a 43-year-old homemaker waiting in line. "I want to save lives — Jewish, Muslim, it doesn't matter."

The Neve Shalom Synagogue was also the site of a bloody attack 17 years ago. Gunmen linked to radical Palestinian militant Abu Nidal shot and killed 22 worshipers during a Sabbath service.

In 1992, Hezbollah detonated an explosive at the synagogue, but no one was seriously injured. Security has been tight since, with heavy metal barriers erected in front of the temple and access restricted.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim, condemned the bombings as "an attack against the 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 assist, condemned the blasts as "criminal terror attacks."

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

Israeli media closely followed the attacks with television and radio offering nonstop coverage. TV footage repeated scenes of frantic rescuers, bleeding victims and smoldering rubble with narration from somber-faced news anchors. Radio stations played melancholy music typically reserved for the aftermath of bombings by Palestinians.

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."

Times staff writer Wilkinson and special correspondent Zaman reported from Istanbul. Staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report

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