Tue, Nov 18, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Al-Qaeda claims it was responsible for blasts

SYNAGOGUE BOMBINGS Turkish authorities are trying to confirm the authenticity of claims that al-Qaeda was behind the car bombings that killed 23 people in Istanbul

AP , ISTANBUL

Turkish officials were investigating claims that the al-Qaeda terrorist network was responsible for the car bombings that devastated two Istanbul synagogues and killed 23 people, the prime minister said yesterday.

Two Arabic-language newspapers received separate statements Sunday claiming Osama bin Laden's group was responsible for the bombings, which Turkish officials said were likely the work of suicide bombers who set off pickup trucks laden with explosives.

There was no way to independently confirm the authenticity of the claims.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish authorities were investigating the al-Qaeda claims.

"Our security teams, our intelligence services have to work to determine the extent of truth of the claims," Erdogan said.

Earlier, Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said the attacks likely had international links and discredited earlier claims of responsibility by a tiny Turkish Islamic militant group, saying it did not have the capacity to launch the sophisticated attacks.

"It is very likely that there is an international connection. We are not ruling out any possibility, including al-Qaeda involvement," he said.

The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades claimed Saturday's attacks in an e-mail to the London-based paper al-Quds al Arabi, saying it had learnt that Israeli intelligence agents were inside the synagogues.

The group has been linked in the past to al-Qaeda, although it remains unclear if the group exists. A copy of its statement was obtained by The Associated Press.

The London-based weekly Al-Majalla also received an e-mailed responsibility claim that said al-Qaeda carried out the Istanbul attacks, as well as the Nov. 12 car bomb attack outside the Italian police headquarters in Nasariyah, Iraq, that killed 19 Italians and more than a dozen Iraqis.

The explosions, set off two minutes apart, devastated Neve Shalom, Istanbul's largest synagogue and symbolic center to the city's 25,000-member Jewish community, and the Beth Israel synagogue about 5km away.

At least six Jews at Beth Israel were among those killed in the blasts, which also wounded 303 people, including Jews and Muslim passers-by.

Sixty-six of the injured remained hospitalized, 10 of whom were in intensive care units in several hospitals, private NTV television said yesterday.

Some analysts believe Saturday's attacks were meant as a warning to Turkey's Islamic-rooted government against continuing close relations with Israel and the West.

"This was a message for the government against pursuing pro-US policies as well as an attempt to hurt Israel," said Umit Ozdag, a terrorism expert.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation which has long had a secular regime, is an ally of Israel and the US and is NATO's only Muslim member.

Tourism agencies expressed concern that the synagogue bombings could lead to a cancellation of bookings for the upcoming holiday season, particularly among Israeli tourists.

Most Israelis choose to vacation in Istanbul, with its Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman heritage, or beach resorts along Turkey's Mediterranean coast.

A drop in tourism revenue could have a negative effect on Turkey's International Monetary Fund-backed economic recovery program.

Turkey's parliament last month agreed to let the government send troops to Iraq to relieve US forces there, but retracted the offer after facing strong Iraqi opposition.

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