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Death Toll Rises in Tunisia Blast

April 12, 2002

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DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) _ The death toll in a fiery truck crash at a Tunisian synagogue rose to at least 10 on Friday, as officials sought to deflect questions about how the explosion could have been an accident.

Six Germans, including an 11-year-old boy, and four Tunisians _ the truck driver, a tour guide and two synagogue workers _ were killed in Thursday’s crash at the historic Ghriba synagogue on the resort island of Djerba. Dozens of people were injured, mostly German tourists.

Tunisian officials quickly called the explosion a tragic accident, but the Israeli government said it was an attack.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that if it was a terrorist attack, ``those responsible must of course be called to account.″ Germany sent two investigators to Tunisia.

The main damage to the ornate Ghriba synagogue occurred at its entrance, where a painted ceiling was charred and the stained-glass window panes were blown out.

Andrea Esper, a German tourist who was in the synagogue at the time of the crash, said that she heard windows breaking and people screaming, ``but I can’t tell you if it was an attack.″

Five people were reported killed immediately and five more died of their injuries.

The explosion followed a spate of attacks on Jewish targets in Europe stemming from the escalation in fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Perez Trabelsi, the synagogue’s president, said he believed the crash was an accident, as did the regional governor, Mohamed Ben Salem.

``I dismiss the theory of an attack because Tunisian Arabs and Jews live like brothers here,″ Ben Salem said.

According to Ben Salem, police said the natural gas tanker was stopped by synagogue guards as it approached the grounds and was ordered to turn around. As it turned, it hit the outer wall and exploded.

Germany’s Bild newspaper gave another account. Citing unidentified German government sources, Bild said the tanker had been parked in front of the synagogue, and the driver allegedly triggered the explosion when guards approached him.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Amira Oron said Israel considered the blast an attack unless proven otherwise.

On Friday, workers swept soot from the synagogue’s marble floors and repainted its charred walls. The Ghriba synagogue was built in the early 20th century on the foundations of one of the oldest synagogues in Africa.

Congregants said they feared that if the blast was discovered to be intentional, it would alarm Tunisia’s Jewish community, which does not typically face problems with anti-Semitism.

``If it’s an attack then all of the Jews of Djerba are going to leave,″ said Rene Trabelsi, son of the synagogue president.

Tens of thousands of Jews lived in Djerba in the early 20th century, but tensions in the Arab world prompted many to leave. Today, the country’s Jewish community numbers about 2,000.

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