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Suicide Bombers Kill 10 at Israeli Port

March 15, 2004|Laura King and Tami Zer | Special to The Times

ASHDOD, Israel — Two Palestinian suicide bombers infiltrated Israel's second-busiest harbor Sunday and set off explosions moments apart, killing themselves and at least 10 workers in the first attack on a major Israeli industrial complex in nearly 3 1/2 years of conflict.

In a precedent perhaps even more worrisome for Israeli officials, the assailants carried out the attack after slipping out of the Gaza Strip. Israel had fenced in Gaza and fortified its boundary to prevent such attacks.

The bombings, which also injured about 20 port workers, scuttled plans for talks this week between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Korei. It would have been their first meeting.

When word of the bombing broke, officials from the two sides had just finished what both described as a cordial, though inconclusive, session to try to agree on a date and agenda for talks. Israel immediately canceled another preparatory session that was to have taken place today. The Sharon-Korei meeting, which Israeli media earlier said was likely to take place Tuesday, was put on indefinite hold.

The bombing also rekindled debate in Israel over Sharon's proposed evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza. Violence has been escalating in the densely populated seaside territory since he unveiled the plan, with both sides appearing determined to bloody the other in advance of any pullout to avoid being seen as the defeated party.

The scene of the attack was the deep-water Mediterranean port of Ashdod, about 25 miles south of Tel Aviv and about the same distance north of Gaza City. The bombing took place in an industrial zone about 400 yards from the waterfront and adjacent to a major Israeli naval base. The base was put on high alert after the bombings, the Israeli military said.

Since the latest uprising began in late September 2000, more than 110 suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians have targeted shopping malls, cafes, pizza parlors, buses and other places where ordinary Israelis congregate -- but never major industrial infrastructure.

Israeli authorities said the bombers might have been trying to detonate the explosives near large vats of chemicals such as bromide in hopes of creating a toxic conflagration that could kill or injure many more Israelis than were inside the complex itself.

The attack occurred at the end of the workday, as port employees were preparing to go home. The first blast tore through the area shortly before 5 p.m., swiftly followed by the second, witnesses said.

"I was just about ready to leave when I heard a boom," engineer Alexander Meister, 48, said from his hospital bed in the nearby coastal town of Rehovot. "I had started to run outside when I heard another boom. I don't want to think about what I saw then -- bodies, bodies, the bodies of my friends."

Several hours later, small fires were still smoldering, and the smell of scorched metal hung in the air.

Volunteer rescue workers in their yellow-and-white reflective vests, who scour every bombing site for human remains so that victims might receive a proper religious burial, were on their hands and knees, wiping down an access road for blood and remains.

Floodlights powered by emergency generators illuminated the scene, with harsh blue light bouncing off the shattered windshield of a tractor-trailer in front of a warehouse that was all but leveled by the explosions.

Two Palestinian militant organizations, Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed joint responsibility for the attack, in keeping with a recent pattern. The bombers were identified as two teenagers -- Nabil Masoud, 17, and Mohammed Salem, 19 -- from the Jabaliya refugee camp, a crowded and desperately poor slum in the northern Gaza Strip.

In the streets of the camp, hundreds of people, including masked members of the two groups that claimed responsibility, staged a triumphal march and fired guns into the air, chanting, "God is most great!"

Abdulaziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, said the attack in Ashdod was retaliation for recent Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"This is in response to the crimes of the occupation," he said. "The Israelis have to know that Sharon is the one who is leading them toward disaster.... There are massacres everywhere, and we cannot stand idly by."

Until now, the tight security seal around Gaza has been something of a point of pride for Israeli authorities. Before this attack, no Palestinian bomber had managed to leave the territory to stage an attack in Israel, although two British nationals last year used foreign passports to leave with explosives used to bomb a Tel Aviv nightclub.

In the early hours of Monday, Israeli helicopters attacked what the army described as "weapons workshops." No casualties were reported.

Israeli authorities also launched an investigation into how the bombers could have penetrated the port's perimeter.

"I'm not concluding at this point that there has been a security failure," said Moshe Karadi, police chief of Israel's southern district.

Israel's infrastructure minister, Joseph Paritzky, told Israel Radio that the bombers "found a weak point and exploited it."

"A port, by nature, is a very busy place," he said. "There are many people coming and going. It is impossible to seal the entire country hermetically."

*

Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Zer from Ashdod.

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