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Two Suicide Bombings Kill 13 in Israel

September 10, 2003|Laura King and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Two suicide bombers struck hours apart Tuesday, setting off powerful explosions at a crowded bus stop outside a suburban Tel Aviv army base and a trendy late-night cafe in Jerusalem. At least 13 people were killed in the blasts, along with the bombers, and dozens were hurt.

The back-to-back bombings underscore the difficulty Ahmed Korei, the Palestinian Authority's prime minister-designate, is likely to face as he tries to win the confidence of the Israeli government and the Bush administration and revive a faltering U.S.-backed peace plan.

After receiving news of the attacks, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short what had been the first visit by an Israeli leader to India to fly home for urgent consultations. Israel has repeatedly accused the Palestinian Authority of failing to crack down on militants, and some officials said Tuesday's bombings would lead to a renewed debate on expelling Yasser Arafat from Palestinian territories.

The blasts came three days after Israel dropped a laser-guided bomb on a building in Gaza City where the leadership of the militant group Hamas was meeting. No one was killed in that attack, but Hamas vowed vengeance "on a scale never before seen." Hamas praised Tuesday's bombings but stopped short of claiming responsibility.

Israeli officials said both bombers were believed to be Hamas members from the same village outside the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Hamas supporters rejoiced as word of the bombings spread. In a rundown neighborhood of Gaza City that is home to many Hamas leaders, celebrants fired semiautomatic weapons into the air and shouted, "God is great!"

In the course of the nearly three-year Palestinian uprising, there have been more than 100 suicide bombings against Israeli targets, but it is rare for two to take place on the same day.

The first bomber struck outside the Tzrifin military base in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Le Zion just before 6 p.m., as a shift change was taking place and the gates were thronged with arriving and departing soldiers.

In the blast's wake, bloodied army boots, torn rucksacks and mangled body parts littered the area around an open-air roadside shelter used by young soldiers catching buses or hitching rides. Seven soldiers, three of them women, were killed. About two dozen others were injured.

"I saw what looked like an injured man lying on the ground," said Meirav Aish, an 18-year-old soldier who ran to help when she heard the blast.

"Then I got closer and saw he was dead, torn all to bits. I saw a woman soldier who was completely burned -- her hair, her eyelashes, her clothes, everything."

Barely 5 1/2 hours later, the second bomber struck, targeting a popular cafe on a Jerusalem street packed with restaurants and boutiques. The bomber managed to force his way among the tables, even with two security guards posted in the cafe, one indoors and one outside.

"When I heard the enormous explosion, I knew it couldn't be anything else," said Batya Bronski, who lives nearby and rushed to see what had happened.

The front windows were shattered, strewing the sidewalk with glass, and the cafe's distinctive red-and-black sign was knocked askew.

"He was wearing dark clothes, but I couldn't see his face," Miran Azran, a waitress at the cafe, said of the bomber. "The explosion was tremendous -- glass everywhere. I saw people injured, dead."

Dozens of ambulances and police vehicles converged on the narrow, congested street, lights flashing and sirens blaring. "Back, back!" rescue workers shouted to the gathering crowd. In addition to the bomber, six people were killed in the second blast.

The evening bombings capped what had already been a bloody day.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops besieged a seven-story building in Hebron that the army described as a hideout for militants, although it was home to many Palestinian families as well. Three Palestinians were killed: a local Hamas commander, an aide and a child.

A fourth Palestinian died in the Gaza Strip, apparently as he tried to plant an explosive device.

Korei condemned bloodshed on all sides in his first policy statement since his nomination Sunday by Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president.

"We condemn all acts of killing that target innocents, whether they be Palestinians ... or the Israelis who were victims of today's explosion," he said, speaking before the second attack.

"Such incidents confirm the necessity for both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to ... study the most effective ways to put an end to the killing."

The renewed violence came as Korei, whose acceptance of the prime minister's job appeared all but certain, continued to weigh his terms for formally agreeing to take the job. Korei has insisted that the United States and Israel end their isolation of Arafat, whom they have tried to marginalize for more than a year.

The bombings lent new impetus to Israel's demand that the incoming Palestinian Authority prime minister make fighting terrorism his central task.

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