PRAGUE, Oct. 6 (JTA) A Czech newspaper claims that Islamic extremists planned to murder dozens of Jews in Prague during Rosh Hashanah though the Jewish community says it was never informed of such a threat. Mlada Front Dnes, a leading Czech newspaper, claims that “unidentified sources close to intelligence agencies” were alerted to the threat that an Islamic extremist group would “kidnap Jews and hold them hostage” in a synagogue, make demands that could not be met and then “blow up the synagogue.” The newspaper provided no details about the source of the threats. Additional Czech media reports stated that the 19th-century Jerusalem Synagogue would be the target. Czech interior Minister Ivan Langer told JTA he could not comment on the report. The head of the Defense and Security Committee in the Czech Parliament, Jan Vidim, also said he could not respond to the article. But Vidim, who was at the Cabinet meeting when a potential terrorist attack was discussed last month, told JTA he was “surprised” at the information that appeared in the newspaper. A Czech online newspaper, Aktualne.cz, countered the Mlada Fronta Dnes report with one of its own, claiming that the secret services warned the government about a plot to kidnap Israelis visiting or living in Prague. Aktualne.cz quoted an anonymous secret service saying kidnappers were planning to grab Israelis out of a restaurant they frequented in the center of town. The street the newspaper mentions, Na Porici, is home to the Dinitz restaurant, owned by an Israeli. Prague has been on high alert for a terrorist attack since Sept. 23, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when the government announced that there was a general threat to Prague from an unspecified source. The city continues to be on high alert, with increased security, until further notice. Hundreds of additional police have been patrolling the streets in the center of Prague, including in the Jewish Quarter. Some media speculated the threat was the result of information gleaned from arrests in Norway of several men accused of firing shots at a synagogue in Oslo. They allegedly also planned to attack Israeli embassies in several countries. However, government sources noted that the Czech role as a supporter of U.S. stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq also could make it a target. The American-operated Radio Free Europe, the Prague-based broadcaster that beams in independent media coverage to various totalitarian regimes, also makes Prague a potential target for terrorists, security analysts said. But it was a plan to kidnap and kill Jews that set the terrorist alert in motion, according to Mlada Fronta Dnes. That was news to leaders of the 1,500-member Prague Jewish community. Community chairman Frantisek Banyai told JTA that just before Rosh Hashana he learned that “there was a general threat against Prague that could include Jewish targets, which would be the case anywhere a terrorist threat were to occur. This meant that yes, synagogues could be targeted, but so could the metro, the airport and the museums.” He was not convinced that the press reports were accurate. “It could be that someone is spreading misinformation to make us afraid,” he said, noting that the article relied on anonymous sources. Czech Chief Rabbi Karel Sidon countered a report in Ha’aretz that a specific threat was made against the Jerusalem Synagogue. “This was an obvious mistake,” Sidon told JTA, “as I was just telling Israeli journalists what the media said, and not any threat I was informed of.” A Prague security expert who spoke on condition of anonymity was highly doubtful of the Mlada Fronta Dnes report. “If a specific threat to a synagogue or the Jewish community existed in such a way, there would have been a massive increase in security in the Jewish Quarter and in front of the Jerusalem Synagogue,” he said. The Jerusalem Synagogue is about a 10-minute walk from Jewish Quarter. “There would have been roadblocks and checks on every car in the area, but that was not the case,” he said. “During the holidays, police were checking identification at the door of each synagogue and were seen walking in pairs in the area, but there was no dramatic increase in security.” Jaroslav Kmenta, one of two reporters who worked on the Mlada Fronta Dnes article, said the story took several weeks of research. “We obtained the information. It was not a leak by a single source,” Kmenta told JTA. “We confirmed it with more than one person.” He added that his sources were from the Czech intelligence agencies, but would not reveal which branch. Asked why no one in government would confirm his report, Kmenta responded, “They don’t want to be specific because they don’t want just anyone to possibly get hold of important classified intelligence information.” Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, says Kmenta’s revelations may be a blessing in disguise. “We have been fighting with the city, trying to get them to close off the street where the community building is located in Prague. We want them to erect barriers to terrorists,” Kraus said. “The city said we don’t have the money and don’t know how to operate such a system. Maybe now they will take our request seriously.” Car bombs are the biggest potential terrorist threat to Jewish sites, according to a security analysis done by the community. Kraus, like several other Jewish community members, told JTA he was not aware of a specific threat to a synagogue. On the eve of Sukkot, Alexander Putik, who has been attending services at the Jerusalem Synagogue for over 30 years, said he was not at all nervous. “But I can imagine that some people are frightened,” he said. “If there had been a threat, I’m not sure police were prepared to deal with a hostage situation.” He said he still planned to go to a sukkah in the evening, then added, “but maybe I shouldn’t tell anyone where it is.”
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Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.