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Turkey Says Militants Carried Out Attacks

November 18, 2003

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ Turkish authorities concluded Tuesday that two deadly synagogue bombings were carried out by Turkish militants inspired by _ and perhaps working for _ the al-Qaida terror network. The finding fuels growing suspicions that Osama bin Laden’s reach extends to NATO’s sole Muslim member.

As the government wrapped up DNA tests on the remains of the two suicide bombers, hundreds of Jewish and Muslim mourners buried the six Jews who died in Saturday’s blasts, which also killed 17 Muslims and wounded more than 300 people.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told The Associated Press that the bombers, who detonated their explosives-laden trucks outside Istanbul’s main synagogue and a second one three miles away, were Turks and that they had Turkish accomplices in planning the attack.

``It will be determined whether these people worked directly with al-Qaida or are just sympathizers,″ Gul said by telephone from Stockholm, Sweden.

``The first impression is that these people seemed to have the same mindset of al-Qaida, they have the same concept, they are from the same school,″ he said.

Bin Laden’s terror network claimed responsibility for the bombings Sunday in messages to two Arabic-language newspapers. It was not possible to authenticate those claims.

An al-Qaida link would make Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but secular nation, into a new front on the U.S.-led war on terror. That could bring Turkey, already a key U.S. ally, even closer to Washington after months when the relationship has been rattled by differences over the war in Iraq.

The role of local militants in the attack could also embarrass the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has its roots in an Islamic fundamentalist party. The military, which sees itself as the defender of secularism in Turkey, has long been suspicious of the ruling party and its attempts to raise the profile of Islam in daily life.

The synagogue bombings, which were condemned by Erdogan, pose ``a real test″ for his government ``to let the radicals of Turkey and the region know that these kinds of attacks cannot and will not be tolerated,″ said Jonathan Schanzer of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Washington touts Turkey as an example of a Muslim democracy. Ankara has also been building military and economic ties to Israel. The attacks ``are likely to push Turkey to further expand cooperation with Israel, the United States and the other allies in fighting international terrorism,″ said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a Turkish terrorism expert.

Turkey has been chasing possible links between local Islamic groups and al-Qaida since a notebook containing instructions in Turkish on how to carry out suicide bombings was found in a deserted al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.

Gul said results of the DNA tests on the remains of the bombers would be made public soon. But newspapers reported that four suspected members of a Turkish group thought linked to al-Qaida _ two bombers and two accomplices _ had been identified.

The Neve Shalom bomber was 29-year-old Mesut Cabuk, who stayed in Iran between 2000 and 2001, all major newspapers reported Tuesday. Police said his Turkish passport was found at the scene, the reports said.

The Beth Israel bomber was identified as 22-year-old Gokhan Elaltuntas, newspapers said. Daily Hurriyet identified their accomplices as 27-year-old Azad Ekinci, a schoolmate of Cabuk, and Feridun Ugurlu. Ekinci and Ugurlu fled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on Oct. 28 before the bombings, Hurriyet said.

Police said the suspects were members of a little-known group identified as Beyyiat el-Imam, whose name means ``Allegiance to the Imam″ in Arabic, Hurriyet said.

The organization was formed in the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and is reportedly led by a Saudi cleric identified as Abu Musab. He is believed to have crossed into Iran since the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan.

Ekinci reportedly had affiliations with a variety of Islamic groups, including Hezbollah _ a violent Turkish Sunni group, unrelated to the Shiite Lebanese group of the same name. He traveled to Iran, received military and explosive training in Pakistan between 1997-99 and fought in Chechnya, daily Milliyet said. Ugurlu also spent time in Pakistan, Hurriyet said.

Police did not confirm the reports. Police found a Pakistani passport in pieces at the crime scene after Saturday’s attacks but could not determine its owner.

Hours after the attacks, an outlawed Turkish radical group called the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders-Front also claimed responsibility for the synagogue bombings, but Turkish authorities said the attack was too sophisticated to be carried out by that group.

On Tuesday, Jews and Muslims, chanting prayers in Hebrew and Turkish, bid solemn farewell to the six Jewish victims at a cemetery where the 22 people killed in a 1986 Palestinian attack on Neve Shalom also were buried.

The six caskets were draped with Turkey’s red flags and topped with a tall white candle.

``Today the attacks don’t only target Jews. People from all religions died in these meaningless and inhumane attacks,″ said Isak Haleva, Turkey’s chief rabbi.

Among mourners was Robert Sefada, 62, his head still bandaged from the shards of glass that came raining down on him at the Beth Israel synagogue. He had been sitting next to his childhood friend Avram Varol.

``He was joking, `We’re at a nice ceremony, and I didn’t even put on a tie,‴ Sefada recalled. The next moment there was the blast, and Varol was killed.

About 20,000 Jews live in Istanbul since their ancestors fled the Inquisition in Spain in 15th century. Turkey is Israel’s only Muslim friend in the Middle East and the countries conduct joint military exercises to the dismay of their Arab neighbors and Iran.

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Associated Press writers Frances D’Emilio in Istanbul and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report.

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