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Powell Cancels Talks With Arafat After Suicide Blast

Mideast: A Palestinian woman kills herself and six others in a marketplace attack on the first day of the U.S. secretary's peace mission.

April 13, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — On the first day of his peace mission, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held intense talks with Israeli leaders Friday and nearly came face to face with the violence that brought him here, as a young Palestinian woman blew herself up at a busy Jerusalem marketplace, killing six shoppers.

In the wake of the attack, which occurred shortly before Israelis began the Sabbath at dusk Friday, Powell called off talks scheduled for today with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at his besieged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack. The bomber reportedly came from the Jenin refugee camp, a focus of Israel's 2-week-old West Bank offensive and the home of many of the suicide attackers who have wreaked havoc on Israelis.

In terse language, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said early today that Powell "condemns in the strongest possible terms" the terrorist attack and "expects Chairman Arafat to do so as well. It is important that Arafat not miss this opportunity to take a clear stand against the violence that harms the Palestinian cause."

"In light of today's developments, the secretary will not be meeting with Arafat Saturday."

U.S. officials said the talks might be rescheduled for Sunday, although no arrangements have been made--and a decision is likely to depend on what happens next and whether Arafat complies with the American demands.

The gruesome suicide bombing shook a bus stop at Mahane Yehuda, an outdoor market about half a mile from Powell's motorcade and a mile from the hotel where he is staying. The bomber was identified by Radio Israel as Nidal Daraghmeh of Jenin.

After an eight-day battle in the Jenin camp, the army moved to collect and bury the bodies of Palestinian gunmen killed resisting the Israelis. News of the impending burials stirred fresh allegations, denied by Israel, that the army killed hundreds of civilians in the camp and is trying to hide the bodies. Israel's chief justice ordered a temporary halt to the burial plan late Friday.

Friday's attack in Jerusalem, the 110th suicide bombing in the last 18 months of fighting, drew an angry reaction from the White House, which charged that extremists are trying to disrupt Powell's mission.

"The president will not be deterred from seeking peace," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "Today would be a very good day for Yasser Arafat to publicly denounce terrorism and show some statesmanship."

After just one day in Israel, Powell faces a new crisis. The secretary is "looking at the whole situation in terms of the bombing and where we stand and where we are," Boucher told reporters traveling with Powell.

Powell was informed of the bombing by Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer as he rode in a tightly guarded convoy from his hotel to the Israeli parliament's helipad to fly to northern Israel. He then flew over the site as rescue workers and ambulances scrambled to help the wounded.

Powell later denounced the attack and said it illustrated the "need for all of us, everyone, the international community, to exert every effort to find a solution."

Powell also witnessed the mounting dangers along the nearly 50-mile border between Israel and Lebanon, which has become increasingly tense during the Israeli offensive. Although the Bush administration dispatched Powell largely because of the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, the danger of the conflict spilling over into neighboring countries has intruded on Powell's agenda.

As if to underscore the challenge Powell faces, Lebanon-based Hezbollah guerrillas opened fire with antitank rockets and mortars as the secretary toured the border.

Powell was briefed by the Israeli military in Safed, which is about eight miles from the Lebanese border and 20 miles from Shabaa Farms, a disputed frontier area that is the site of escalating attacks by Hezbollah. In the midst of what Powell described as a sobering briefing, Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, again opened fire.

Maj. Dinor Shavit, spokesman for Israel's Northern Command, said that Israel was "not far from reacting, not far from retaliating. We have people with matches in this region, and it's very easy to light a fire."

It was a rocky start for Powell's diplomatic rescue mission. The secretary began the day with a four-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, including a 2 1/2-hour session between the two retired generals and war heroes at Sharon's residence. Sharon showed Powell gruesome pictures of victims from previous suicide bombings, according to Israeli sources.

At a joint news conference, Powell used flowery language to describe the long U.S.-Israeli friendship "that cannot ever be broken" and the two nations' common purpose in fighting terrorism. But Powell clearly has deep differences with Israel too.

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