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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 21:00 GMT 22:00 UK
Blast at Tunisian synagogue kills five
Jewish pilgrims gathering at the Ghriba synagogue
The synagogue is a place of Jewish pilgrimage
At least five people have been killed by a powerful explosion at an ancient synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

The head of the local Jewish community, Peres Taraboulsi, said: "I think it's an accident, and that it has no link to the situation in Israel".

A truck filled with natural gas crashed into a wall surrounding the synagogue, he said, identifying the dead as the truck driver and four Germans.

However, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon told BBC News Online that "all the evidence points to a truck bombing and not an accident".

Eyewitnesses quoted by the Tunisian News Agency (TAP) said the driver appeared to ignore a security officer's order to stop. It sped up and hit the synagogue, TAP said.

'Bad for tourism'

The blast was heard at least five kilometres (three miles) away from the famous Ghriba synagogue, Tunisia's official news agency said.

German tour operator TUI said 29 of its guests, who were on a bus trip to the synagogue, were injured. A spokeswoman for the company did not know if its guests were among those killed.

Some were treated in hospitals on Djerba, while those seriously injured were flown to the mainland.

There is speculation that it was an attack on a symbol of the small Jewish community at a time of growing anger in the Arab world over Israel's offensive in the West Bank.
Work of wonder
La Ghriba means 'the one who works wonders'
There are more than 1,000 Jews on Djerba
Ancestors believed to have arrived more than 2,000 years ago
Said to have been founded after the Jewish Exile of 586 BC
Place of pilgrimage for Sephardic Jews, second only to Jerusalem's Western Wall
Houses unique collection of Torahs

"From the information that we are getting from members of the Jewish community there, we gather that it was an attack and not an accident," another Israeli foreign ministry official told BBC News Online.

"A truck full of explosives rammed into the wall of a synagogue - it's no coincidence that it was a synagogue, while everything is going on here in the Middle East," he said.

"It's a city of tourism - the reason the Tunisians are saying it was an accident is because they don't want to scare the tourists."

Residents also voiced fears that the synagogue had been targeted.

"Many people fear it was a deliberate attack as what is happening now in the Middle East is on everyone's mind," a member of the Jewish community told the Reuters news agency.

A Djerba resident said: "Many people are worried and most of my friends were praying that it was not a suicide attack. If it was so, Tunisia will suffer from the bad publicity."

Jewish sites in France have come under attack in recent weeks in violence linked to the Middle East.

Pilgrimage site

Ghriba, whose foundations are said to date from 586 BC, is one of Africa's oldest synagogues and is still functioning.

It attracts several thousand visitors for an annual spring festival.

The island of Djerba, off Tunisia's southeast coast, is a popular holiday destination.

It is also home to around 1,000 of Tunisia's 3,000 Jews.

The Jews of Djerba have lived quietly on the island for nearly 2,000 years in two small villages, far away from Tunisian political life and the Arab Muslim population of the mainland.

Their forefathers fled from Jerusalem following the destruction of the Temple.

Many Jews left Tunisia following the creation of Israel in 1948; others followed when the synagogue in the capital Tunis was burned down during the 1967 Middle East war.

See also:

26 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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