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Turkey, Israel Investigate Istanbul Synagogue Bombings - 2003-11-16

Turkish and Israeli experts are investigating the bombings of two Istanbul synagogues amid mounting evidence that the attacks may have been organized by international terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. Meanwhile, Turkish officials say 23 people were killed by the blasts that wounded more than 300 people.

Israeli experts in white uniforms could be seen sifting through piles of rubble and splintered glass strewn before the collapsed facade of the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul's Galata district.

Most of the victims of the Saturday attacks were passersby. Six of those killed were reported to be Jews. A Jewish community spokeswoman told VOA that their funeral services would likely take place Tuesday.

A senior police official quoted by the semi-official Anatolian news agency said about 400 kilograms of explosives had been packed into two pick-up trucks. They exploded within minutes of each other outside the synagogues as Jewish worshippers congregated early Saturday.

Interior ministry officials say there is evidence that the attacks may have been the work of suicide bombers. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said there is no concrete information as to who had organized the attacks or why.

Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom flew to Istanbul to console the country's small Jewish community. He called the twin bombings "cowardly attacks carried out by extremists, who do not want to see countries that are sharing values of democracy, freedom and rule of law." Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul said the attacks not only targeted Jews, but Muslim Turks as well.

Four Turks arrested Saturday in connection with the blasts were released yesterday after being cleared of involvement. Claims by an obscure Turkish Islamist group known as the Great Islamic Eastern Raiders Front, that it had carried out the bombings have been greeted with skepticism by Turkish security officials.

Israeli foreign minister Shalom was quoted by Israeli radio saying that information he had received from the Turkish government showed that "the direction" was "more to al-Qaida."

Saturday's blasts were the latest in a series of strikes against Jewish targets, including suicide attacks in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in May that killed 45 and an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya a year ago that left 18 dead.

Turkey and Israel have historically enjoyed close relations capped by a military training and cooperation agreement signed by the two countries in 1996. The accord provoked anger among Turkey's Arab neighbors and Iran, who accuse Ankara of forming a joint front against them with the Jewish state. But such reaction has been more than offset by unrelenting Israeli support for Turkey's bid to become a full member of the European Union and backing from the influential Jewish lobby in Washington.

Fears that the relationship would suffer under Turkey's pro-Islamic government, which swept to power a year ago have proved empty. The Turkish energy minister, Hilmi Guler, is scheduled to travel to Israel next month to sign a long delayed agreement to sell the Jewish state up to 50 million cubic meters of water annually from Turkey's Manavgat river.