Tunisia Says Synagogue Blast Was Accident

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia sought on Friday to deflect suspicions that a blast which killed at least seven people outside North Africa's oldest synagogue site might have been a suicide attack.

The country's eight daily newspapers all reinforced the official line that the blast was an accident and not linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Tunisian tour guide died overnight of injuries sustained in the blast, a tourism official said, taking the confirmed death toll to seven.

Four German tourists, a policeman and the driver of the tanker, which was filled with cooking gas, died when the truck blew up outside the El Ghriba Jewish shrine on Thursday on the resort island of Djerba, according to Tunisian authorities.

In Berlin, a spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry said an 11-year-old boy died of his injuries early on Friday and said two German women were confirmed dead and a third missing.

She said 24 Germans were being treated in hospital, several of them with serious injuries. Some of the injured may be flown back to Germany for treatment, she said.

Tunisian authorities issued a list of 32 injured, one of them a Frenchman who was "very seriously" injured.

A spokesman for the German travel firm TUI told Reuters a coach carrying about 45 tourists was near the synagogue at the time of the explosion and was hit by the wave of the blast.

The Tunisian government said it was a tragic accident, but Israel suspected foul play and witnesses said the chain of events appeared suspect.

A statement from the German foreign ministry however, referred to the blast as an accident.

STAKES HIGH FOR TUNISIA Diplomats said the stakes were high for Tunisia. It claims to be a haven of peace between the turmoil in the Middle East and a decade of violence in neighboring Algeria.

Thousands of Jews, including Israelis, gather each spring at the shrine in a rare festival which Tunisians proudly point to as a sign of religious tolerance.

The synagogue itself is only some 75 years old, but there has been one on the site for what some estimate to be 1,900 years.

Djerba hosts over a third of the five million tourists a year who visit the country, Africa's top destination after South Africa. Nearly a million of last year's visitors to Tunisia were German.

Officials have struggled to keep tourists coming since the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities.

The Tunisian government, which tightly controls the media, was quick to stress the blast was an accident.

"Preliminary indications show that a truck equipped with a gas tank hit the pavement and outer fence of El Ghriba shrine," a senior government official said.

He said the police and judiciary were carrying out separate investigations and that all information would be made public.

But Israel's foreign ministry said it believed the deadly explosion was a terrorist attack.

An independent local group, the Committee for Liberty and Human Rights Respect in Tunisia (CRLDHT), cast doubt on the official explanation.

"The government version is questionable particularly if we take into account that the synagogue was in a dead-end road," it said in a statement.

Witnesses said the truck had taken an unusual route.

"The driver took a bizarre non-tarred track which cuts through olive trees and the truck blew up about three yards from the synagogue outer wall," said one of several reporters allowed inside the compound some 11 hours afterwards.

"People who witnessed the incident said the driver outfoxed police guarding the synagogue, as few people knew about or usually took that track."

Tunisians, like Arabs elsewhere, are angry because they feel Arab governments and their allies in the West have been unwilling to force Israel to stop its bloody incursion into Palestinian territory.

Gerard Ben Rabi, the leading figure in the local Jewish community, told Reuters by telephone that the synagogue main room took the brunt of the blast and was severely damaged.

"The authorities just allowed me to get in and I'm seeing the great room of El Ghriba damaged by the fire from the explosion," said Ben Rabi.

He expressed doubts that the blast was deliberate.

"Tunisian Arabs and Jews here could not believe that an attack could target El Ghriba, a landmark of tolerance between religions and culture," he said