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Germany Probes Possibility of Terror in Explosion at Tunisian Synagogue

April 17, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Echoing the suspicions of Israeli officials, Germany has taken the lead in investigating whether a truck explosion at a Tunisian synagogue was a terrorist attack.

On Monday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the April 11 explosion on the Tunisian island of Jerba may have been deliberate.

“There are indications of an attack, but no final certainty,” Schroeder said. The possibility reinforced the need to keep up the fight against global terror, he added.

That same day, German police arrested a man suspected of involvement in the explosion. The suspect was taken into custody in the western German city of Duisburg following a tip about a phone call made before the attack.

Fifteen people, 10 of them German tourists, were killed when a truck filled with natural gas crashed into the historic Ghriba Synagogue last week.

Tunisian officials sought to downplay the incident as a routine traffic accident, but Israel’s Foreign Ministry said almost immediately that it was a terror attack.

A Foreign Ministry source said Israel had no hard proof, but noted that the synagogue is in an isolated place.

“To get there, you have to want to get there,” the source said.

Tunisia ordered the wall that the truck crashed into — which was a likely source of evidence for an investigation — painted over within hours.

Witnesses also voiced suspicions that the incident at the synagogue was intentional and was linked to ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence, which has sparked attacks on Jewish interests across Europe.

The blue-and-white synagogue, set in the middle of an olive grove, is built on the foundations of one of the oldest synagogues in Africa and is a site of pilgrimage for Jews.

According to tradition, Jews first came to Jerba in biblical times, bringing a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that is kept in a grotto at the synagogue.

An estimated 3,000 Jews live in Tunisia, about 1,000 of them on the island of Jerba. It is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, dating back more than 2,000 years.

Tunisia is a popular European vacation destination, and its Jewish sites attract many German visitors. The German Foreign Ministry said this week it was not putting out a travel advisory at this time.

Tunisian officials and local Jewish community leaders have been reluctant to see the explosion as anything but an accident.

At stake are both Tunisia’s reputation as a tourist haven and as a place where Jews and Muslims live together peacefully.

But even the Tunisian government conceded Tuesday that it was pursuing leads beyond its original “tragic accident” theory.

German authorities, meanwhile, are interviewing survivors of the explosion in hopes of finding clues.

The blast occurred as a busload of German tourists was visiting the synagogue. Also killed were a French citizen and four Tunisians, one of them a tour guide.

Tunisian officials initially said the driver of the truck was among the dead and that his body had been burned beyond recognition, but this was countered by witness accounts.

Survivor Helmut Eckert of Berlin, who was interviewed in Germany by the Federal Crime Bureau, said he had seen a small delivery truck parked in front of the entrance to the synagogue.

“A man got out, closed the doors. He walked away quickly toward the neighboring houses. Seconds later, the truck exploded. That must have been the perpetrator,” Eckert told reporters.

Siegfried Muller, an eyewitness from Hamburg, said it definitely was not an accident. He said he saw the truck parked at the entrance before the tourist bus arrived.

German witnesses described the driver of the truck as about 30 years old, with short hair, wearing blue overalls with splashes of paint on them.

German journalists appear convinced that this was a terror attack.

Some reports discussed how the incident could bring the issue of terrorism home to Germans.

Other reports suggested that Germany play a larger role in trying to resolve the Middle East crisis, because of the possibility of increased violence in Europe.

Still others assessed the possible damage to Tunisia’s tourist industry.

The Berliner Morgenpost said the event’s effect on tourism is secondary compared to its potential damage to the relationship between Tunisia’s Jews and Muslims.

The Frankfurter Rundschau reported that Jews, Muslims and political leaders in Tunisia are desperate to believe that this was not an anti-Semitic attack.

The explosion shocked people in Tunisia, the paper reported. A day after the explosion, the paper said, Muslims and Jews were trying to comfort one another in front of the synagogue, shock written across their faces.

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