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Suicide blast kills 3 at Israeli bakery

A 20-year-old Palestinian carries out the attack, which two militant groups say is meant to inspire more.

January 30, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A young Palestinian set off an explosives-laden backpack in a bakery in the Red Sea resort of Eilat on Monday, killing himself and three other people in the first suicide attack against Israel in nine months.

The blast occurred far from Eilat's beachfront hotel strip, a popular tourist destination, thanks to a coolheaded Israeli army reserve officer. He had unwittingly agreed to drive the hitchhiking bomber toward the city but had become suspicious and dropped him on a remote bypass road.

As police summoned by the officer closed in, the backpacker walked to a poor neighborhood, entered the only shop open, and ignited 33 pounds of explosives, officials said. The 9:36 a.m. blast killed the Lechamim Bakery's two owners and an employee, the only other people inside.

Two Palestinian groups, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed joint responsibility for the bombing and said it was meant to encourage rival Palestinian factions to stop fighting one another and "point the guns" at Israel instead.

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'This is an escalation'

Israeli leaders said the attack jeopardized a 2-month-old truce accord between them and Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip. The bomber was identified by the two militant groups as a 20-year-old from Gaza whose family said he had left home on a suicide mission three days earlier.

"This is an escalation, and we shall treat it as such," Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said as he convened an emergency meeting of top security officials in Tel Aviv. "No terror organization will get away. The cease-fire will not prevent us from hitting them."

Early today, Israeli warplanes bombed a tunnel in Gaza near the Israeli border, the first such attack since the cease-fire accord. A military spokesman said Palestinian groups had been planning to use the tunnel to send more suicide bombers into Israel.

Monday's blast also cast a shadow over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's plan to hold a three-way meeting next month with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on ways to revive long-moribund peace talks.

Abbas has been unable to stop sporadic Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza in violation of the cease-fire. Some of the rockets have come from the Al Aqsa group, which is loosely affiliated with his Fatah movement.

Suicide bombings have become rare in Israel, and Monday's attack prompted Israeli television stations to break into programming with live coverage from the scene. The bakery and neighboring shops were a shambles, with shattered glass, loaves of bread, metal trays and body parts strewn on the bloodstained sidewalk.

Benny Mazgini, 45, told Israel Radio that he watched from a balcony across the street as a man in a black winter coat and a backpack entered the bakery. It was 53 degrees out.

"I said to myself, 'What's this idiot dressed like that for?' " Mazgini recalled. "I went inside, and a few seconds later I heard a massive explosion."

Hundreds of Israelis died in suicide attacks in the early years of this decade. Israeli officials say their stepped-up army patrols and the construction of a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank have brought the number of bombings down sharply in the last two years.

The previous suicide bombing hit a Tel Aviv restaurant in April, killing 12 people.

Israel is separated from Gaza by a well-patrolled electric fence. Defense officials told Israeli media that the bomber had avoided that border by crossing from Gaza to Egypt's Sinai peninsula through a smugglers' tunnel and then into Israel across an unfenced, lightly patrolled desert border dozens of miles northwest of Eilat.

Yossi Voltinsky, a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army reserves, said he saw the oddly dressed young man on the side of the road north of Eilat while driving to work at a hotel. The man signaled for a ride. Voltinsky stopped, thinking the man might have missed the bus to work.

"As soon as he entered the car, I saw that he was very nervous," the officer told Israel Television. "His coat was tightly closed and he wore a strange hat. His eyes expressed tremendous stress. He sat in the back and didn't speak. He only signaled with his hand that he wanted to reach lower Eilat, the resort area."

"I understood right away that this is probably a suicide bomber," he added. "It was pretty clear there was a bomb in his bag."

Voltinsky said he drove to a sparsely populated stretch of the Eilat bypass road, stopped the car and, after a tense argument, persuaded the passenger to get out. Then he called the police and tried to stay on the suspect's trail. But the man broke into a run and escaped, the officer said.

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