ISTANBUL, Turkey – Twin car bombs exploded outside Istanbul synagogues filled with worshippers during Sabbath prayers Saturday, killing at least 20 people and wounding more than 257, officials said.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said there were “international connections” to the near-simultaneous attacks, one of which blasted the city’s largest synagogue, Neve Shalom, 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 was blown into the street in front of Neve Shalom, leaving the twisted wreckage of a car, as medical teams carried away bloodied and burned victims. The other blast hit the Beth Israel synagogue in the affluent district of Sisli, three miles away, collapsing its roof and littering the street with debris.
“There was huge panic, glass exploding and metal pieces all over the place,” said Enver Eker, who witnessed blast at Neve Shalom, which in Hebrew means “oasis of peace.”
At least 20 were dead and 257 were wounded, the Istanbul Health directorate announced.
The chief rabbi of Turkey’s 25,000-member Jewish community, Isak Haleva, was slightly injured in his hand, and his son Yosef suffered serious facial wounds and underwent eye surgery, another son, Mordehay Haleva told the Anatolia News Agency.
“To do something like this when people are praying — this is truely beyond the pale of human conduct, even animals don’t commit evil like this,” the chief rabbi told Israel Radio.
“We were in the middle of prayers, suddenly there was a big explosion,” Haleva said. “All of the windows were shattered. i found myself in shock, amid a great cloud of smoke.”
Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said police were investigating whether the car bombs were set off by suicide attacks, by timer or by remote control.
Footage from security cameras showed a red Fiat exploding in front of Neve Shalom synagogue, and the driver who parked the car walking away, police told the semi-official Anatolia news agency.
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.
Al-Qaida is thought to have carried out an April 2002 vehicle bombing at a historic synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba that killed 21 people, mostly foreign tourists.
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. 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.
Israeli, EU and NATO leaders expressed horror at the synagogue bombings.
“One can hardly imagine a more tragic, violent and cruel attack than to simultaneously go after two places of worship on the Sabbath in order to kill a maximum amount of people who are busy praying and worshipping their Gods,” said Daniel Shek, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom contacted his Turkish counterpart to express his condolences and to offer Israeli assistance in treating the wounded, Israel Radio reported.
NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson expressed condolences to the victims’ families and Turkish people.
“These odious crimes near two synagogues are unacceptable acts of hatred and intolerance, which I strongly condemn as barbaric attacks against innocent people,” Robertson said in a statement.
The synagogue is the most important spiritual center for the 25,000-member Jewish community of predominantly Muslim Turkey.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.