Bomb derails Mideast talks

Israelis end session after suicide attack kills 3, injures scores

Cease-fire jeopardized

Zinni blames Arafat

Palestinian's meeting with Cheney in doubt

March 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli officials canceled the latest round of cease-fire talks with the Palestinians last night after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a row of shops in downtown Jerusalem, killing himself and three bystanders and injuring more than 60 others.

The thunderous blast rumbled through the city in what has become a familiar occurrence. Cars screeched to a halt; people blocks away stopped to listen for the inevitable wail of sirens that confirmed their fears.

Once again, the target was downtown, a wide central artery of shops and apartment buildings that have been shot up and bombed repeatedly by Palestinian militants over the past 18 months.

"Unfortunately, what I experience day in and day out is blood, more blood and more blood," said Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, standing near a splintered hat shop, toy store and a patisserie that bore the brunt of the blast.

It was unclear what long-term implications the second deadly attack against Israel in two days will have on the U.S.-brokered negotiations, but it appears that a truce announcement that had been expected any day is in jeopardy.

The attacks also threaten to derail a possible meeting on Monday between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Vice President Dick Cheney, and could prompt Israel to bar Arafat from attending next week's Arab summit in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant wing of Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for yesterday's bombing. It came a day after a suicide bomber from the militant group Islamic Jihad killed seven Israelis aboard a bus in northern Israel.

After that incident, Arafat issued a statement condemning attacks in Israel. Now it appears that even groups affiliated with Arafat's party are not following his orders, indicating either that he is too weak to control the armed militias or is unwilling to do so.

"Mr. Arafat has to give clear orders to his people that he wants peace, not war," said Noam Katz, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "It is clear that the Palestinian Authority is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. There are certain factions that are not interested in reaching a cease-fire."

Arafat read a statement to reporters yesterday evening from his office in Ramallah in which he condemned the bombing and said that such attacks "must cease."

"We strongly condemn this military operation that took place in West Jerusalem today, especially since it was against innocent Israeli civilians," Arafat said. "We will take the appropriate and immediate measures to put an end to such attacks."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called on Arafat to condemn the attack in a public address in both Arabic and English, mindful that Arafat often delivers contradictory messages to Palestinians and outsiders.

U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni, who is brokering the cease-fire meetings, blamed Arafat for the bombings. Zinni said he "regrets that Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have not taken steps or exerted any effort to prevent this or other attacks and to deal with those who are responsible. This process will only succeed if Chairman Arafat exerts such efforts immediately and unequivocally."

Yesterday's bombing occurred about 4:25 p.m. on a rainy day, in front of a toy store and a pastry shop on King George Street, a central thoroughfare in the heart of the main shopping district. The site was just two blocks from the Sbarro's pizzeria destroyed by a suicide bomber last summer, killing 15 people, and near that of many other terror attacks in recent months.

Witnesses said they noticed a suspicious man and reported him to police.

Chizki Loonstein, 18, an Israeli paramedic, was walking to the pastry shop run by his family. He said he came within six feet of the bomber.

"I saw the suspect with a bandage on his head," Loonstein said. "He was sort of looking around. He smiled at me, opened his coat and showed me the explosive belt. Then he exploded."

Loonstein pushed up against a stone wall to shield himself from the blast, dislocating his shoulder. After the explosion, he called police on his mobile phone and began to treat people wounded by nails packed into the bomb.

Downtown Jerusalem has been virtually deserted the past two weeks, as police warn about potential attacks almost daily. The scene yesterday was a familiar one: a loud, rolling boom followed by sirens and fear as police rushed to the scene and others ran away.

Zinni, a former Marine general, was to have met with Israeli and Palestinian security officials last night to continue the talks that broke off Wednesday. Instead, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and later with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Last night, Sharon convened an emergency meeting of his security Cabinet to discuss a possible response to the attack. He refrained from launching a military strike on Wednesday out of deference to the cease-fire talks.

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