Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World | THE FIGHT AGAINST TERROR

Temple Blast May Have Been Planned

Tunisia: Explosion at old synagogue that killed 16 appears to have been deliberate, officials in several nations say. Man is detained in Germany.

April 17, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — A truck explosion that killed 16 people outside a synagogue in Tunisia last week looks increasingly like it might have been a terrorist act, authorities in Germany, France and Tunisia said Tuesday.

Tunisian authorities at first insisted that the truck containing natural gas blew up accidentally, but German prosecutors say an accelerating criminal investigation indicates that the April 11 blast on the resort island of Djerba was a deliberate attack.

German police detained a suspect in Duisburg late Monday as they conducted searches in several cities near Duesseldorf. Prosecutors targeted the man because he allegedly spoke by phone with the gas truck's driver shortly before the explosion.

"The reason for starting investigations in Germany was a tip from Tunisian officials that the suspected perpetrator made a telephone call to Germany a few hours before the deliberate attack," the federal prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Prosecutors did not identify the detained man. They questioned him Tuesday and released him because they found no "urgent suspicion" that would enable them to hold him under German law. However, they said the investigation was continuing.

"There are increasing suspicions that this was an attack," said Interior Minister Otto Schily, announcing that he had dispatched five more investigators to Tunisia. The blast killed 10 German tourists, four Tunisians and two French citizens.

The Tunisian government appeared to back down Tuesday from its description of the explosion as an accident. The official Tunisian news agency said investigators were "ruling out no lead and no direction, including possible links that the suspect could have had with elements established in Germany."

The driver of the truck had lived with relatives in Lyon, France, the news agency said, but it didn't identify him further. The Tunisian government also referred to a recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks in France and other European countries spurred by Israel's military operations in the West Bank.

Like German officials, French authorities have doubts about the accident theory and have asked to be kept informed about the investigation, said Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry. The French government has not opened a criminal investigation, but the law permits such a probe when French citizens are victims, according to a law enforcement official here.

French and German tourists who survived the explosion at the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in Africa, have said in interviews that they are convinced that they were victims of an intentional attack. Their accounts have not resolved the question of whether the truck crashed into the building before exploding or erupted in flames in a no-parking zone.

The driver is believed to have died in the blast. Three German victims are still hospitalized in critical condition.

Two Arab newspapers on Tuesday reported a claim that the explosion was an attack carried out by an Islamic group tied to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. A self-described member of the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites called the newspapers and said the attack was retaliation for the Israeli operation in the Palestinian territories, according to the London-based Arab dailies Al Quds al Arabi and Al Hayat.

The same name was used by the group that took responsibility for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Al Qaeda members have been convicted in U.S. courts for those bombings. Al Qaeda's stated goal is to drive U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, because their presence is considered a defilement of Islamic holy sites there.

Aspects of the Djerba case resemble past plots by Al Qaeda. The suspicion that an accomplice in Germany was involved recalls the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, which were allegedly led by a terrorist cell based in Hamburg. Duisburg, the city where the suspect was detained Monday, also was the base of an Algerian terrorist cell linked to Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in a 1999 plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

Accused Tunisian members of Al Qaeda who spent time in France, Germany and Belgium played leading roles in several alleged terrorist conspiracies, including the assassination of the anti-Taliban military commander Ahmed Shah Masoud in Afghanistan on Sept. 9.

If the Djerba explosion turns out to be the work of terrorists linked to Al Qaeda, it would be the bloodiest such attack since Sept. 11. Among other acts perceived as retaliation for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan were the March grenade attack on worshipers in a church in Pakistan in which five people, including two Americans and the bomber, died, and the killing of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

*

Christian Retzlaff of The Times' Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|