Death toll climbs to 13 in synagogue blast and questions about origin of explosion linger

DJERBA, Tunisia - Jewish men and teen-agers held a solemn sabbath service on Saturday amid the blackened interior of their historic Tunisian synagogue, two days after a gas-laden truck exploded, killing 13 people, mainly tourists.

Leaders of Tunisia's 2,000-strong Jewish community remained perplexed about the origin of the Thursday blast at the Ghriba synagogue on the resort island of Djerba. The island is the hub of this Muslim North African nation's approximately 2,000-strong Jewish community.

Authorities opened an investigation but have called the blast a "tragic accident."

The toll climbed to 13 Saturday with the death of two injured Germans and a French man. A total of eight Germans were killed. Ten injured Germans were evacuated to Hamburg by a German Army hospital plane on Saturday.

Three Tunisians, the driver of the truck and two workers, as well as a French-Tunisian tour guide also were killed.

The explosion shook the Jewish community here. It came amid a spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe that have coincided with the growing violence in the Middle East.

"At first, when I arrived shortly after the explosion I thought someone dressed as a tourist had set off a bomb," said Perez Trabelsi, the synagogue's president. "I wouldn't ever have thought of a truck. But then I saw the tank, which was ripped wide open."

Tourism Minister Mondher Zenaidi visited the synagogue on Saturday, the highest ranking government official to do so.

He reiterated the official explanation of a "tragic accident" and expressed condolences.

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

"Tunisia is a country of tolerance, respect for differences and respect for religions," the minister said.

Tunisia is also a small nation tucked between Algeria and Libya which depends heavily on tourism. Djerba, with its white beaches and swaying palms about 600 kms (375 miles) south of Tunis, is a key destination of European and other tourists.

The synagogue itself receives between 700 and 2,000 tourists per day, depending on the day of the week, according to Rene Trabelsi, son of the synagogue's president.

Both father and son said that witnesses, including four rabbis praying at the time, spoke of hearing three separate blasts but couldn't explain their cause.

Regional Governor Mohamed Ben Salem has said that the tanker was stopped by synagogue guards as it approached the grounds and was ordered to turn around, but hit the outer wall and exploded.

Rene Trabelsi, who lives in Paris but returned home following the blast, said the synagogue had never received any threats. Tunisia has been a haven of security for the country's Jews, who are held in high esteem by government leaders, he said in an interview.

"As soon as something happens regarding Jews and, especially, because tourists were victims here, it's natural to think about the possibility of an attack," he said.

"It would be an enormous coincidence, but I still think we need to leave open the possibility that this is just bad luck."

The only recollection of an anti-Jewish attack in Djerba was the Oct. 8, 1985, killing of three people in the island's business district by a Tunisian policeman. He was apparently seeking revenge for the Israeli raid a week earlier on PLO headquarters, then housed outside Tunis. The raid by six Israeli planes left at least 61 Palestinians and 12 Tunisians dead.