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Death Toll at 13 in Tunisia Blast

April 13, 2002

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DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) _ Two Germans and a French citizen died Saturday from injuries suffered in a firey truck crash at a famous synagogue in this Muslim North African nation, bringing the death toll to 13 people.

Questions about whether the explosion at the Ghriba synagogue was an accident, as Tunisian authorities have contended, or an attack remained unanswered. Germany has sent officials to help in the investigation.

Tourism Minister Mondher Zenaidi, visiting the site Saturday, referred again to the ``tragic accident ... at one of the most sacred sites in Tunisia.″ His was the first visit by a government official since the explosion. Sabbath services were held at the synagogue on Saturday.

``Until the investigation is finished, there should be no speculation,″ he said in response to a question about whether the truck crash might have been an attack.

The truck laden with gas crashed into the synagogue and exploded Thursday on the resort island of Djerba. Government officials and the synagogue’s president quickly called it an accident, but the Israeli government called it an anti-Semitic attack.

An official of the German Embassy in Tunis, Waldemar Schroeppel, confirmed that two Germans died Saturday, bringing the total number of dead from that country to eight.

In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said that a French citizen injured in the blast had died. Four Tunisians were also killed, including the truck’s driver.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told reporters that if the blast was a terrorist attack ``those responsible must, of course, be called to account.″ Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the government wanted the cause of the crash ``cleared up beyond doubt.″

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

``Tunisia is a country of tolerance, respect for differences and respect for religions,″ the tourism minister said during his visit to the synagogue.

Tunisia led a crackdown in the 1980s and early 1990s on the banned En-Nahda (Renaissance) Muslim fundamentalist group.

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

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

According to the regional governor, Mohamed Ben Salem, police said the tanker was stopped by synagogue guards as it approached the grounds and was ordered to turn around. It hit the outer wall of the synagogue and exploded while in the process of turning, according to that account.

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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