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Turkey: Bombings may be work of foreign terrorists

At least 20 killed, more than 300 hurt in coordinated attacks

Emergency workers clear up after the devastating blasts.
Emergency workers clear up after the devastating blasts.

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Two cars laden with explosives simultaneously blew up near two Istanbul synagogues, killing at least 20 people. CNN's Andrew Finkel reports. (November 15)
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Istanbul (Turkey)
Acts of Terror

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkey's foreign minister says blasts close to two Istanbul synagogues that killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 300 others appear to be a coordinated terror attack with "international links."

Authorities speculate the attacks -- which rocked the synagogues as Jewish worshippers prayed at weekly Sabbath services -- were carried out by terrorists from outside the country, possibly al Qaeda.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said "it looks as if this is a terror attack which has international links." Turkish Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu told reporters that "no organization has claimed responsibility yet" and investigators are "considering every possibility. Any organization could be behind this."

Earlier, Turkish media reported a claim of responsibility for the blasts from a radical Turkish Islamist group, the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front.

Police investigators said the bombs were similar -- both contained potassium chloride and sodium nitrate -- and both were packed into station wagons that were parked near the synagogues.

Officials credited tight security around the buildings for keeping the bombers from inflicting more damage inside the synagogues. Many of the casualties were passers-by.

Outside one of the synagogues, a surveillance camera taped a man parking a station wagon in the street. Moments later, the vehicle exploded.

One bomb detonated about a meter from the Neve Shalom synagogue in the Kuledibi district, police told CNN Turk.

The heavily guarded synagogue had security cameras in and around the place of worship, where a bar mitzvah ceremony was being held. Many of the few hundred people inside were evacuated through a backdoor entrance. Yosef Halefa, son of Turkey's chief rabbi, was wounded in the attack.

Security at Neve Shalom has been tight since it was the target of a deadly attack in 1986, blamed on a Palestinian militant group. And, because of terror fears, synagogues throughout Europe have been fortified over the years.

Shattered glass littered the streets where many small shops are located, and the facades of buildings have been destroyed.

More than 300 people were wounded in the bombings outside two synagogues.
More than 300 people were wounded in the bombings outside two synagogues.

The second car bomb detonated near Istanbul's Beth Israel Synagogue, about three miles away in the Sisli district, and was an equally devastating blast. The bombing was at the rear of the synagogue, and caused structural damage and started fires, which were swiftly extinguished.

The Jewish community numbers about 25,000 in the predominantly Muslim country of 68 million. Avi Alkas, Istanbul's Jewish community leader, called the blasts "a severe blow to our community," which lost six people, including an 8-year-old girl and her 85-year-old grandmother praying in one of the synagogues.

There is no tradition of anti-Semitism in Turkey, where there has been a vibrant Jewish community for centuries.

"We were not expecting such a blow because here in Turkey, in Istanbul, in this beautiful city, we have always proved Islam and Judaism can live harmoniously in a peaceful manner, in a co-existence. I do presume that these are coming from outside, not within the country," Alkas said.

He said some of these funerals will be taking place in the targeted synagogues.

World leaders condemn bombings

Soon after the attacks, President Bush called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to express his condolences, a senior administration official said. The president also expressed the best wishes of the United States for rapid recovery for the wounded, and both leaders reiterated their commitment to continuing to work together on the war on terrorism, the official said.

Bush condemned the attacks "in the strongest possible terms" in a city "where Turkey's diverse religious communities of Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers have flourished together for centuries.

"The focus of these attacks on Turkey's Jewish community, in Istanbul's synagogues where men, women and children gathered to worship God, remind us that our enemy in the war against terror is without conscience or faith," Bush said in a statement.

Secretary of State Colin Powell called Gul to extend condolences. There is no information yet on whether any Americans were hurt or killed in the blasts.

Erdogan, on a visit to Cyprus, condemned the attack, and Israel's ambassador to Turkey was en route to the scene from Ankara.

Israel denounced the blasts, calling them "criminal terror attacks" and saying "terror is terror whether it targets Jews or non-Jews." Israeli officials said they had heard of no specific threats against Turkey's Jewish community.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said it "has absolute faith and confidence that the security and law authorities know how to catch those responsible."

Turkey and Israel have ties dating back to 1948, when Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the Jewish state. They continue to maintain close trade and military links. Turkey has been a popular vacation destination for Israelis.

"This is really a time to say to the Turkish people that the people of Israel are with them at this very difficult hour," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said.

Both Israel and the United States offered to assist Turkey in any way. Other nations, include France, Britain and Greece, decried the Istanbul bombings.

Anti-Jewish violence

There have been other large-scale attacks in recent years against Jewish targets across the globe, and steady reports of vandalism and violence.

A synagogue in Tunisia was struck last year, killing at least 20. In the Kenyan port of Mombassa, also last year, at least 15 died in car bomb attack on a hotel frequented by Israeli tourists, and two missiles miss Israeli airliner taking off from the city. In 1994, an attack on a Jewish center in Argentina killed 85 people.

Also Saturday, a Jewish school near Paris was badly damaged by a fire, and authorities are suspecting anti-Semitic arson.

Jewish groups have warned of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world, the latest example being recent remarks by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who said Jews rule the world "by proxy."

Another Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Danny Shek, said a negative image of Israel across the globe "may also contribute in one way or another to the diabolical image that Jews and Israel have around the world and therefore may foster ideas among such fringe organizations.

"We don't know exactly who the perpetrators are, but I think it's probably not too difficult to guess that one should look in the area of the Islamic fundamentalists."

-- Journalist Andrew Finkel and CNN Turk's Kaya Heyse and Dicle Buharali in Istanbul, correspondents Sheila MacVicar and Chris Burns and producer Yoav Appel in Jerusalem, and White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux and producer Elise Labott in Washington contributed to this report.

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