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German Official Confirms Tunisia Blast Was Attack

Probe: After a visit to temple on Djerba and talks with counterparts, interior minister returns and calls deadly explosion an act of terrorism.

April 23, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Germany's interior minister confirmed Monday that an explosion at a synagogue in Tunisia that killed 16 people earlier this month was the work of terrorists, not an accident, as local authorities had insisted.

After meeting with officials in Tunis and inspecting the evidence, Interior Minister Otto Schily said he had concluded "with 100% certainty" that the attack on the Tunisian island of Djerba in which 11 German tourists died was deliberate and the result of international collaboration.

German media have reported that police traced cell phone calls made between the Djerba assailant and associates in Germany, including claims of a possible connection between the attacker and a suspected accomplice of three Sept. 11 hijackers.

Tunisia's leaders initially ruled the April 11 explosion of a gas-laden truck at the Ghriba synagogue, North Africa's oldest, "a tragic accident" and began immediate repair work. But after survivors among the German tour groups visiting the synagogue at the time of the blast told investigators that they saw the driver get out of the truck just before it exploded, Schily called on the Tunisian government to probe the matter further.

Schily traveled to Tunis, the capital, over the weekend, before visiting the explosion site Sunday and laying flowers in memory of the victims, who also included French and Tunisian citizens. On Monday, he met with Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. After those talks, Schily told Germany's ARD television that both governments are now convinced that the explosion was an act of terrorism.

"It's clear from the way the truck was loaded, from the way the explosion was set off, from the kinds of substances found at the scene," said Schily, a lawyer who once represented accused terrorists of the Red Army Faction. He said further investigation is necessary to determine who or what organization was behind the attack but said there is already "considerable evidence" of the involvement of several people.

German police briefly detained a German convert to radical Islam in the western German city of Duisburg a week ago after investigators traced calls to him from the truck driver, a 25-year-old Tunisian with a family in Lyon, France, who is believed to have died in the bombing.

According to the respected Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily, the suspected attacker, identified as Nizar Nawar, called the Duisburg man and asked him, "Pray for me." The Duisburg man was under police surveillance even before the Djerba attack for known involvement in extremist circles, investigators have said. But he was released for lack of evidence to hold him.

The issue of Der Spiegel magazine that hit newsstands Monday and Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper reported that the search of an apartment belonging to a Moroccan friend of the Duisburg man turned up the Hamburg telephone number of Ramzi Binalshibh, 29. That Yemeni is one of three fugitives sought for allegedly providing logistical support to the three Sept. 11 hijackers who plotted their attacks in Hamburg.

German media, citing anonymous intelligence sources, also have reported suspected links between the Djerba attacker and his associates and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Tunisian authorities have pledged unfettered assistance in the reopened investigation, Schily said.

In an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper a day earlier, Tunisian Tourism Minister Mondher Zenaidi denied that his government had sought to steer investigators away from a terrorism conclusion to shield the country's tourism-dependent economy.

"At no point was anything hushed up," Zenaidi said. "The first results of the investigation pointed to an accident."

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