Story highlights

NEW: 5 teens in custody; one says attack not anti-Semitic, prosecutor says

Prosecutor: About 250 headstones were overturned, columns uprooted

This is third time since 1988 cemetery was targeted, according to AFP

CNN  — 

Five teenagers are in custody after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Sarre-Union, France, Saverne prosecutor Philippe Vanier said Monday.

The minors, all between the ages of 15 and 17, grew up in the Alsace region of France and have no criminal records. Police took the teens into custody after a 15-year-old turned himself in, saying he had damaged the cemetery with four other teenagers, the prosecutor said.

One of the teens denied the attack was anti-Semitic, Vanier said. The teens thought the graveyard was abandoned and didn’t notice the graves were Jewish until after they had begun to vandalize them, the prosecutor said, recounting what one of the teens told police.

They are charged with desecration of graves and with organized damage on property for the public benefit, Vanier said. They each face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Though it wasn’t noticed until the weekend, it appears the damage occurred late Thursday afternoon. About 250 graves were damaged, with most of the damage consisting of headstones being overturned and columns uprooted.

Photos from the cemetery showed gray stone and glossy marble headstones lying on the ground as if they’d toppled over.

“We express the strongest condemnation of the desecration of hundreds of graves in a Jewish cemetery,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a news release.

“Everything will be put in place to identify, arrest and send to justice the perpetrators of these ignominious acts,” he said. “The French Republic won’t allow another act against our values.”

Calling the site “an image of desolation,” Philippe Richert, president of the Alsace region, told Agence France-Presse why he felt the damage was the certain work of vandals: “One doesn’t knock over heavy steles like that dating from the 19th century very easily. It was a deliberate act of destruction.”

Prime Minister Manuel Valls sent out a tweet calling the destruction “a vile, anti-Semitic act, an insult to the memory” and promised “everything will be done to find those responsible.”

This is not the first time the Sarre-Union cemetery, located about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the German border, has been targeted. In 1988, about 60 Jewish headstones were knocked over, and 54 grave markers were damaged in 2001, AFP reported.

The vandalism comes within weeks of other Jewish cemeteries being targeted around the world.

In Warsaw, Poland, on January 31, someone wrote “Jews for slaughter” on the fence outside one of the continent’s largest Jewish burial grounds, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

And in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Saturday, a vandal spray-painted a swastika on a headstone and knocked over two others, breaking them, in the Jewish section of the Southern Cemetery, the New Zealand Herald reported.

The cemetery attack in France comes after two high-profile acts of violence against Jews in Europe. Following last month’s attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, a gunman killed four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris. Over the weekend, a gunman attacked a free speech forum in Copenhagen before shooting several people outside a synagogue.

CNN’s Laura Akhoun and Margot Haddad contributed to this report.