Turkey, Israel Probe Synagogue Bombings

Evidence is pointing to an international hand — perhaps Al Qaeda (search)'s — behind the deadly bombings of two Turkish synagogues, officials said Sunday. The sophisticated attacks used trucks stuffed with nearly identical explosives detonated minutes apart, likely by suicide bombers.

Israeli intelligence and explosives experts joined Turkish officials Sunday in the probe of the twin bombings, which killed 23 people and wounded more than 300 — including Jews at the synagogues, but mostly Muslims who were passing by.

Forensic workers pieced together body parts and searched for clues amid the wreckage from blasts that Israeli experts were stronger than most bombings seen in Israel. Officials found two bodies fitted with wire, and one of them matched partial remains found in one of the attack cars, media reported — suggesting that the explosions were set off by suicide bombers, not by remote control or timers.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu (search) said the chance that the attacks were suicide bombings "is more than 95 percent."

"I am not saying 100 percent because the investigation is still underway, but I was convinced that these attacks were suicide bombings after I saw the scenes of the attacks and was briefed by authorities," the minister said.

"It is very likely that there is an international connection. We are not ruling out any possibility, including Al Qaeda involvement," Aksu said, adding that the identities or nationalities of the bombers were still unknown.

He said the attacks involved a pair of Isuzu pickup (search) trucks, each packed with explosives, and that they appeared to be carbon copies of one another.

Turkish news reports said the license plates were fake and that false documents were used to purchase one of the pickups last month.

The blasts, two minutes and 3 miles apart, rocked two synagogues holding Sabbath (search) morning services. A bar-mitzvah, or coming-of-age ceremony for a young male, was under way at one.

"The vehicles were either detonated while they paused in front of the synagogues or as they were proceeding slowly at those points," Aksu said, adding that experts believed that because of the massive weight of the explosives in the pickups, the drivers themselves had detonated the blasts.

Each pickup was packed with some 880 pounds of explosives, a mix of ammonium sulfate, nitrate and compressed fuel, a senior police official said, according to Turkey's semiofficial Anatolia news agency. The explosives had been put into containers wrapped in sacks and hidden among containers of detergent.

The blasts near one of the synagogues ripped off balconies and blew out windows several stories up. The iron entrance door to the Neve Shalom temple, Istanbul's largest synagogue and symbolic center to the city's 25,000-member Jewish community, was ripped off.

A neighborhood away, in Beth Israel synagogue — where the six Jews who died in the bombings were killed — white prayer shawls were stained with blood. Prayer books were scattered on the floor. On a stained-glass panel of a door, the six-pointed Star of David remained intact.

"I thought it was doomsday," said Recep Ulubay, a Muslim whose deli shop near Beth Israel synagogue caters to the worshippers. "No religion can accept this. We are all children of the same God."

Among the badly wounded were a policeman who had been guarding one of the synagogues and his 12-year-old son, who had wanted to show off new clothes for the start in a few days of the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan.

Inspecting the horror inside the houses of worship was Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who flew to Istanbul to show solidarity with the small Jewish community in this predominantly Muslim nation, which has long had a secular regime — though its government is currently Islamic-rooted — and is an ally of Israel.

The bombings "were cowardly attacks carried out by extremists who don't want to see countries that share values of democracy, freedom and rule of law," said Shalom, who laid wreaths of chrysanthemums in the rubble.

Istanbul Jews asked the Israeli rescue service ZAKA to come to Turkey to help retrieve the remains.

Said Zelig Feiner, a ZAKA spokesman: "We've seen many suicide attacks in Israel, but the amount of explosives and damage here is something we've never seen before."

Explosives and forensics experts flown in from Israel worked with Mossad intelligence agents on the probe.

Anatolia reported that four people had been questioned about the attacks but that authorities released all of them after concluding they weren't linked to the bombings.

Interior Minister Aksu said authorities doubted that a Turkish radical Islamic group that claimed the attacks had the capacity or international ties to launch such a strike.

Shalom, in an interview with Israel's Army Radio from Istanbul, was cautious about assigning blame.

"From what is being said here, the direction is more to Al Qaeda according to the Turkish government, but this hasn't been finalized. There are things that still need to be investigated," Shalom said.

The Turkish daily Radikal reported that Mossad warned Turkish intelligence units twice about attack plans, once in April last year and again in September. But an Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied Mossad had given warnings.

In 1986, Palestinian gunmen killed 22 worshippers at Neve Shalom.

Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States and was the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel, in 1948.

Al Qaeda is thought to have carried out an April 2002 vehicle bombing at a historic synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba that killed 21 people, mostly foreign tourists.