ANTWERP, Belgium -- A bomb in a car parked near a synagogue exploded shortly before a scheduled Jewish religious ceremony today in a tremendous blast that killed two people, injured 99 others and rocked the city's diamond market.
Police said two women were killed and 16 of the injured were in serious condition in the bombing that Prime Minister Mark Eyskens called 'clearly another attack against the Jewish community.' It was the second anti-Jewish incident in Antwerp in three months.
Survivors told of scores of injured stumbling through clouds of smoke and dust, 'blood streaming from their faces,' and of dead and injured on the street.
An anonymous caller told the Belgian news agency Belga the attack was carried out by the 'Group of Direct Action.' He said it was not a racist attack, but a warning that further attacks might be made. Police had no immediate comment.
The explosion rocked the Hoveniersstraat, a largely Jewish area that is one of the world's greatest diamond cutting and selling districts. The bomb exploded minutes before a scheduled service in a Portuguese Jewish synagogue, although no one was reported inside at the time of the blast.
The interior of the synagogue was heavily damaged.
The bomb had been planted in a delivery truck parked since Monday night. It was parked illegally, but a wheel had been removed as if it had broken down.
The blast broke windows for blocks and tore the car apart, leaving only the axles, a pile of glass and other debris.
Police cordoned off the area and ordered nearby offices cleared, lest another bomb go off in a second parked car. The car was towed away, but a search turned up no bomb.
Expressing his 'great indignation and sympathy for the numerous victims,' Eyskens appealed 'not to let our country be drawn into an escalation of violence and intolerance' before leaving for Antwerp for an inspection of the site. 'The bitter lesson from what happened today is that our society must defend itself,' Eyskens told a news conference. 'This was clearly another attack against the Jewish community,' he said.
Edward Muylaert, chief of Antwerp's Civil Protection Corps, said the damage 'was unbelievably extensive.' He said it was impossible to estimate the damage immediately, but that the diamond business, Antwerp's most important commerce, was out of action for at least several days. Many buildings were so heavily damaged they were unsafe and people had to be evacuated, he said.
'We must try to get the economically important diamond quarter able to work again as soon as possible,' Eyskens said.
Witnesses said a number of injured who could still walk were transported to hospitals by police buses to leave ambulance space for more seriously injured.
State trooper units reinforcing city police began checking the quarter for other explosive charges.
The explosion coincided with the Jewish Simhat Torah end of the year celebration.
It was the second attempt against the Jewish community in Antwerp. In July of last year, a Lebanese gunman threw a grenade at a bus being boarded by a group of Jewish children. One child was killed and 14 were injured, seven seriously.
The grenade attack was denounced at the time by Naim Khader, the Brussels representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who was shot by a gunman in May.
The area where the bomb exploded is one of the world's largest diamond sales and cutting centers in the world and dates back to the 16th century.
The truck was parked behind the Diamond Club of Antwerp Co. which adjoins the synagogue. 'I was in my office when the aluminum window frames were blown out of the wall,' Robert Steigrad, 22, one of the company's directors said. 'Glass flew all over the place.' Steigrad's hands and face were cut by splinters.
Christine Debruyn, a housekeeper in a nearby diamond office, said 'I just sat down for breakfast when the floor suddenly heaved under my feet. There was a tremendous bang. Some picture frames fell off the wall. I ran outside into the street and saw people stumbling toward me in a cloud of dust, blood streaming over their faces. Others were lying on the ground, some moaning, some motionless like dead.'
Two workman in a building said they rushed out as they heard a terrible blast. 'Dust came billowing in through the garage door,' one of them said. 'The car was ablaze. We emptied seven or eight fire extinguishers, as we were afraid somebody might be trapped in the van, but the flames could not be extinguished.'
'It looks like war again,' said an old man, remembering the days toward the end of World War II when Antwerp was hit by German buzz bombs.
The Israeli Embassy in Brussels issued a communique saying 'Once more we have to note that the blind Palestinian terrorism strikes at Jews wherever they are, in Europe like in Israel. ... But the assassinations of the Palestinian terrorists will not achieve their aim. Like in the past, Israel will continue on the road of peace in solidarity with the Jewish people.'
The PLO office in Brussels said it 'firmly condemns and has always condemned attacks like the one committed this morning in Antwerp and which has made numerous victims.'