| Shattered vehicles after an explosion outside the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. (AP)
Istanbul, Nov. 15 (Reuters): At least 20 people were killed and more than 250 wounded today when car bombers shattered two Istanbul synagogues as worshippers celebrated the Sabbath.
Turkish officials said al Qaida might have had a hand in it. “It is clear that this is a terrorist event with international links,” foreign minister Abdullah Gul said as emergency services struggled to treat those caught up in the blasts, which wrecked cars and buildings over wide areas.
Interior minister Abdulkadir Aksu said he could not rule out a role by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida, blamed for attacks on other Jewish targets around the world in the past 18 months.
“It was like a battlefield,” said Yavuz Guler, who dashed to one of the synagogues from the nearby restaurant where he works. “The injured were in an awful state, moaning, but unable to speak. Some were screaming, there was a lot of blood and body parts on the street,” the 24-year-old said. The attackers could have been suicide bombers or may have detonated devices in the vehicles by remote control, Aksu said.
“In both cases, vans were driven by the attackers towards their targets. We believe they contained the same kind of explosives, they are the same kind of terror attacks,” he said.
Istanbul health authorities said 20 people had been killed and 257 wounded in the two attacks, which hit the central Neve Shalom synagogue and another, Beit Israel, in the Sisli district around 0730 GMT. The Neve Shalom — “Oasis of Peace” — was especially busy for a bar-mitzvah coming of age ceremony. But many of the casualties were not Jews but people passing by on the busy streets outside the heavily protected synagogues.
Police officers earlier said as many as 24 had died. The Anatolian news agency said one policeman was among the dead.
A radical Turkish Islamist group, widely believed to be backed by Iran, claimed responsibility, but Aksu said he doubted a local group could mount such a large-scale operation.
“It is difficult for any Turkey-based organisation to carry out an attack of this magnitude,” he said at the scene.
Injured people covered in blood were carried on stretchers from around the Neve Shalom synagogue, target of a 1986 attack by Palestinians which killed 22 people. Six years later it was hit again, this time by a Turkish group. A passer-by was hurt.
Predominantly Muslim Turkey is a key Nato ally of the US and recently offered to send troops to help secure neighbouring Iraq, though it later abandoned the plan due to strong opposition from Iraq’s US-appointed governing council.
Turkey, which has a long history of homegrown political violence, also has warm relations with Israel.
Turkish Islamist group IBDA/C — the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders/Front — claimed responsibility in a call to Turkey’s semi-official Anatolian news agency.
Jewish sites have been targeted in recent attacks blamed on militants linked to al Qaida — notably in Casablanca in May, a Tunisian synagogue bombed in April 2002 and Israeli tourists in the Kenyan seaside city of Mombasa last November. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer issued a statement condemning the bomb blasts as did numerous world governments.
Istanbul, as the capital of the Ottoman empire, has a long history of Jewish presence, notably bolstered after Spain expelled Jews in 1492. About 30,000 live there now, some of whom still speak a medieval form of Spanish known as Ladino.
“If they are trying to scare the Jewish community here, they will fail. We have been here for 500 years and we will stay. Terror will not win,” Roberto Abudara, who had been in the Sisli synagogue when the attackers struck, said.
Edi Baruh, a 30-year-old Turkish Jew said his father-in-law, who was at the Neve Shalom synagogue when the bomb exploded, had told him up to 300 people were there, 10 times more than usual, because it was a bar-mitzvah, a coming of age for a boy. Gul said the attacks would not affect government policy.
“We will continue our struggle with strong determination against terror,” he said.
Roland Jacquard, head of the International Terrorism Observatory in Paris, said the likeliest suspect was the militant group Ansar al-Islam, which the Pentagon has called the principal “terrorist adversary” of US forces in Iraq. Jacquard said claims of responsibility should be treated cautiously, but that IBDA/C was very close to Ansar.