Suicide bombers strike twice in Israel, killing at least 14

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

and Matthew Rosenberg ~ The Associated Press

RISHON LETZION, Israel -- Twin Palestinian suicide bombings -- one at a bus stop crowded with soldiers near Tel Aviv, the second five hours later at a popular Jerusalem nightspot -- killed at least 14 Israelis and wounded and maimed dozens as the region grappled with a new wave of savage bloodletting.

There were no claims of responsibility, but the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has carried out most of the roughly 100 suicide bombings against Israelis over the last three years, had been expected to avenge Israel's attempt on the life of its spiritual leader on Saturday.

In one Gaza neighborhood, Palestinians fired assault rifles in the air and about 100 took to the streets in celebration after the attack on the cafe. In the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, some Hamas supporters celebrated by distributing candies to the families of those killed in previous violence.

Israel's military has relentlessly targeted Hamas militants since the group claimed a suicide bombing last month that killed 22 people on a Jerusalem bus. Earlier Tuesday, Israeli troops in Hebron killed two Hamas members -- including the group's leader in the West Bank town -- and a 12-year-old bystander, and blew up a seven-story apartment building where the militants were hiding out.

The day's violence underscored the collapse of U.S.-backed peace efforts and came amid political uncertainty after the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

An increasing number of Israeli officials were calling for the expulsion of Yasser Arafat, and expectations were mounting that Israel will step up military strikes and possibly invade the Gaza Strip -- which Israel has not yet reoccupied -- to root out the Hamas leadership.

Tightened security

Security was extremely tight throughout the country, especially in Jerusalem, in anticipation of a Hamas attack.

The first bombing came about 6 p.m., as soldiers were waiting for rides home outside the Tsrifin army base near the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion.

Cpl. Eyal Schneider, 20, was walking toward the bus stop when he heard the explosion and saw a fireball. "People were running from the bus stop shouting 'bomb! bomb!"' he said.

Ambulances from nearby Assaf Harofeh hospital quickly lined up at the scene, rescue workers rushing to aid screaming victims.

Police and hospital officials said eight were killed in addition to the bomber. Fifteen people were being treated at the hospital, all but one of them soldiers, spokeswoman Nurit Nehemia said. Others were treated for minor injuries and released.

Leaders of Hamas praised the attacks but stopped short of claiming responsibility.

More than five hours later, about 11:20 p.m., another suicide bomber entered the Hillel Cafe, a popular bistro in the posh German colony neighborhood of Jerusalem.

At least six other people were killed and more than 30 were wounded, rescue workers said.

"I have a store next to the cafe. I arrived just a few moments after the blast. I saw things that just can't be described, there are no words," said a witness who identified himself only as Shavi.

The attacks came as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was away on a visit to India aimed at cementing the two countries' strategically important relations. Militants have frequently carried out terror attacks during Sharon's visits abroad -- occasionally causing him to cut trips short.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking outside a fund raiser for President Bush in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., called the bombings "vicious attacks" and condemned them in the "strongest possible terms."

McClellan said Bush remained committed to the "road map" peace plan, but he said the bombings "underscore the need to fight terrorism and the need to dismantle terrorist organizations and groups like Hamas."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized "the urgency with which the Palestinian Authority needs to take immediate and effective steps to dismantle and disarm the terrorist capabilities."

Abbas, the outgoing Palestinian premier, refused to do this by force, appealing to the militants to voluntarily lay down their arms. Abbas resigned on Saturday, frustrated with four months in office in which he repeatedly wrangled with Arafat and failed to persuade Israel to ease security measures imposed on Palestinians.

Ahmed Qureia, whom Arafat has asked to become the new Palestinian prime minister, expressed "our regrets and pain for the innocent lives (lost) as a result of violence and counter-violence" and called on Israeli leaders to "search for ways to end this killing."

Qureia -- a former top peace negotiator -- has sought guarantees that if he accepts the post, Israel would do more to implement its obligations under the "road map." Israel has not frozen settlement-building or withdrawn from most Palestinian towns, saying the Palestinians must first dismantle militant groups as called for by the plan.

A senior Israeli official said on condition of anonymity that Qureia's terms were not acceptable.

"We will judge any Palestinian prime minister by his actions," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in a statement. "He will have to decide whether he stands with Arafat or whether he stands against terrorism."

Qureia said he will "not be under an Israeli dictate" but reiterated that the Palestinians are "committed to the road map" -- a blueprint for ending violence and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

He and other Palestinian leaders accuse the Israelis of making the situation worse by carrying out a series of airstrikes against Hamas militants following last month's suicide bombing aboard a Jerusalem bus. Those strikes have killed 12 Hamas members and five bystanders.


Associated Press reporters Jason Keiser and Lourdes Navarro contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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