Fatal Gaza bombing a direct attack on U.S., American official says

FBI agents, Palestinians go through evidence at Israeli checkpoint

October 18, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

TEL AVIV, Israel - This week's deadly car bombing in the Gaza Strip was a direct attack on U.S. interests and was probably caused by rising anti-American sentiment in the Palestinian territories, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.

FBI investigators met for several hours yesterday with their Palestinian counterparts at an Israeli military checkpoint on the Gaza border to pick through the evidence gathered so far.

Wednesday's attack, which killed three American security guards working under contract for the U.S. government, was the first direct deadly attack on a U.S. target in more than 50 years of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, and signaled a worrying new development in the bloody conflict. American citizens have been killed in bus bombings and other violence over the years.

Despite the arrests Thursday of at least seven men by Palestinian authorities in Gaza, the identities of the individuals or organization responsible for the bombing were still unclear, said the U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

However, the official said there was no doubt about the objective of the remote-controlled mine that exploded under the armor-plated vehicle, which was traveling in a three-car convoy along Gaza's main north-south highway.

"This was a targeted hit against the United States, no question," the official said.

Rumors about the attackers have run rampant since the bombing, which also wounded one American security guard.

In interviews in the Israeli media, some Israeli intelligence officials have blamed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for organizing and ordering the attack, while others have pointed fingers at outside Islamic militant organizations such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah or Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Some officials have also suggested that elements within the Palestinian Authority who are sympathetic with militant Palestinian groups tipped off the attackers to the route of the convoy.

The Preventative Security Agency, the Palestinian Authority's elite security service, whose officers have received CIA training, has arrested seven men, most of whom are members of the so-called Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza.

The loosely knit group of neighborhood militias was formed during the past three years of fighting to protect the Palestinian refugee camps from Israeli tank and armor assaults.

Committee members, who largely consist of disgruntled Palestinian police officers and dropouts from other militant organizations, have become known for their manufacture and use of road bombs and land mines. Their mines have killed seven Israeli soldiers and destroyed three Merkava tanks, the most heavily armored vehicle in Israel's arsenal.

The FBI has not had access to the seven suspects, the U.S. official said, but the Palestinians have briefed the American team on the questioning of the detainees.

The U.S. official said American investigators were not limiting their probe to one Palestinian militant group.

"We don't have a particular address we're going after," the official said.

A Western diplomatic source could not confirm Israeli speculation that Hezbollah or other outside Islamic groups was behind the attack.

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