Suicide bombers kill 3, wound dozens in Tel Aviv

After 3 1/2 weeks of calm, two attacks in two days

July 18, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Two Palestinian suicide bombers standing 20 yards apart blew themselves up last night in an immigrant neighborhood of Tel Aviv, killing three civilians and wounding more than 40 people in the second deadly attack in two days.

The twin blasts occurred seconds apart outside an all-night convenience store shortly after 10 p.m., in the heart of a shabby section south of downtown Tel Aviv, where the old central bus station used to be.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, which came a day after Palestinian gunmen raked a bus with gunfire in the northern West Bank, killing eight Israelis on their way to the religious settlement of Emmanuel.

Israelis had just begun their fast for Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning that marks the destruction of the Jewish Temples, and police had saturated Jerusalem as thousands participated in the annual march around the walled Old City.

Tel Aviv was relatively quiet, with most restaurants and other places of entertainment closed. But the immigrant section, home to many non-Jews who work as farmhands, laborers and house cleaners, was crowded as usual.

Two of the dead were foreigners and one was an Israeli, police said last night. They had been among a crowd gathered near a small sunflower seed store that caters to Romanians and also sells beer, candy and cigarettes. The shop is sandwiched between a shuttered porn theater and a toy store.

Minutes before the blast, a municipal worker had fined the Romanian owner $78 for being open on a religious fasting day. One of the bodies lay on the floor of the open-air shop, but packs of chocolate, seeds and nuts remained neatly stacked on the countertop, unmoved by the explosion.

The owner was sweeping up and washing blood off his floor last night as a television flickered with news of the attack.

Simon Steven, 26, was drinking beer at another shop down the street when he heard the explosions. "I thought it was a bomb," he said. "My friend said, `No, there are only bombs in Gaza.'"

Steven said he came to Israel six years ago from the southern Sudan, where he had been a member of a Christian militia group. He is a temporary resident working in a retail store.

"The situation is very difficult here," he said. "You can't guarantee your safety when you walk out the door."

Even so, he likes Israel and wants to stay.

"The southern Sudan is much worse," he said. "There is more death than here."

The blasts blew out storefront windows and littered streets with glass and other debris. But police said the bombs, carried in backpacks, were not as powerful as others have been and apparently were not heavily packed with nails and bolts, which can cause mass casualties.

Still, the bombs triggered thunderous booms and spread panic in the densely populated neighborhood, where at least 60,000 immigrants live in subsidized apartments. Many work in low-income jobs once held by Palestinians who are no longer allowed into Israel from the West Bank.

Other incidents

Early yesterday, Israeli soldiers fought an hourlong battle with gunmen suspected of carrying out Tuesday's bus attack. The soldiers had been searching for the gunmen all night when they spotted suspects in a dry riverbed near Emmanuel. A Palestinian and a 21-year-old Israeli army lieutenant died in the fighting.

Last night, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who they said led a militant squad responsible for several attacks on Jewish settlers near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Near Qalqilya, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian running toward a Jewish settlement, the army said. Israeli border police reported the arrest of a leader of the militant group Hamas.

Also last night, Israeli warplanes fired missiles into a building in the central Gaza Strip, destroying what it said was a factory that produced mortars fired at settlements.

Talks postponed

There was no immediate response by the army to yesterday's attack in Tel Aviv, but Israeli officials said today's meetings with Palestinian officials to discuss the easing of restrictions in the West Bank would be postponed, as they were after the shooting on Tuesday.

Israeli officials criticized work by the so-called Quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - which met Tuesday to try to mediate a solution to the 21-month Middle East conflict, saying last night that the group has come up with nothing to end the violence.

"While the Quartet is talking about reform, the Palestinian Authority and the terrorist groups are performing a rhapsody of death and carnage," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We cannot trust anyone. Not the Palestinian Authority to take action. Not the international community. We have to defend ourselves."

In Washington, President Bush condemned the violence as "acts of terror" and offered his "deepest sympathies and condolences" to the families of those killed and wounded in the attacks in Tel Aviv and the West Bank.

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