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Palestinian suicide blasts kill 23 in Israel


TEL AVIV, Israel - Two Palestinian suicide bombers set off explosions seconds apart in a crowded immigrant neighborhood last night, killing themselves and 23 people and injuring more than 100.

Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for what was the second-deadliest attack since the conflict erupted in September 2000 - behind only the March bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya that killed 29 people. Last night's blasts were the first suicide attacks since November, when 11 people were killed aboard a bus in Jerusalem.

The blasts at a bus stop and on a nearby pedestrian mall lined with shops were powerful enough to shatter windows four stories up, showering streets with shards of glass and sending debris flying as far as three blocks.

The dilapidated area is near a defunct central bus station that teems with foreign workers - many from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. But medical officials said most of the dead appeared to be Israelis.

"There were lots of injured people," said Yossi Landau, 34, a rescue worker who was among the first at the scene. "They were crying and begging for help. There were people without legs and without hands. People were dying in front of us."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with his foreign and defense ministers late last night to determine what action to take, but his ability to respond appears limited. Troops occupy most Palestinian cities on the West Bank, and to avoid upsetting the Arab world, any idea of expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is on hold at least until after the United States deals with Iraq.

Still, a strong military response is expected. Early today, Israeli army helicopters fired as many as nine missiles at two Palestinian Authority offices in southern Gaza City that the military described as weapons factories, sending red streaks streaming through the sky and plunging the city of more than 350,000 into darkness. Eight people were slightly injured, Palestinian medical workers said.

Palestinian residents also reported a buildup of army forces near a southern Gaza Strip refugee camp in Rafah, a frequent flash point.

The Aqsa brigades, a militant faction loosely linked to Arafat's Fatah political party, said Boraq Abdel Rahman Haifa and Saber al-Nouri, from the West Bank city of Nablus, were the Tel Aviv bombers.

In a statement to Al-Jazeera television, the group said it sought to avenge the deaths of Palestinian civilians and the destruction of homes by the Israeli army. The Damascus, Syria-based Islamic Jihad had said earlier that it had carried out the bombings; it was unclear last night whether the two groups shared responsibility.

Arafat's Palestinian Authority criticized the attacks, saying: "It rejects the idea of revenge with which some are trying to justify these attacks against Israeli civilians. It announces its determination to confront firmly the perpetrators of these attacks, the planners and whoever stood behind them."

The bombings are a setback for cease-fire talks that have been going on sporadically for weeks in Cairo, Egypt. Leaders there are trying to stop the violence and restart negotiations with Israel ahead of Israel's Jan. 28 national elections, in which security and the Palestinian conflict are the primary issues.

Israeli officials blamed Arafat, accusing him of failing to rein in militant groups. About 90 minutes after the blasts, Sharon addressed 7,500 Jewish students visiting from a dozen countries, including the United States.

"Our goal is to stop the brutal terror and to achieve calm and quiet," he told the audience in Jerusalem. "Only when the brutal terror is stopped, only then will we be able to talk peace. All attempts to reach a cease-fire, even today, are failing due to the Palestinian leadership that continues to support, fund and initiate terror."

The attacks occurred about 6:30 p.m. south of downtown Tel Aviv. One bomb exploded on a main thoroughfare at a bus stop crowded with people heading home from work and killed more than seven people. The second bomb went off two blocks away on Neve Sha'anat Street, killing more than 10 people. The exact number of dead at each location could not be determined last night.

The pedestrian mall has been hit twice before. In July, two suicide bombers blew themselves up on one end of the street, killing three people; and last January a suicide blast wounded 32 people. Last night's explosion at the pedestrian mall was only 3 feet from where the one last January occurred.

The dimly lighted street is lined with shoe stores, markets, bars, and an adult peep show and massage parlor. The area was filled with people eating dinner or shopping when the bomb exploded near a carryout called McChina and outside a money-changing store and shop from which people can make international phone calls - places that cater to foreign workers.

The front of the exchange shop was splintered; a large blood-streaked billboard with three dollar signs hung from the ruins. All along the mall were piles of victims' clothes and shoes as well as rubber gloves left behind by paramedics.

Witnesses and victims described moments of chaos. Many people ran screaming from the first blast only to find themselves in the middle of the second. Rescue workers were seen dumping a body on the ground so that the stretcher could be used to carry an injured man.

There was more mayhem at hospitals as some foreigners refused treatment and ran away from emergency rooms because they were in Israel illegally and were afraid of being deported.

Television stations broadcast announcements in English to assure the foreigners that they would not be arrested if they sought treatment or searched for injured friends or relatives. Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai granted immunity for all illegal workers injured in the attack.

Israeli police said they do not believe militant groups targeted foreigners but were simply searching for crowded places. Foreign workers have been repeated victims during this conflict; they came to Israel for a better life only to find themselves caught up in somebody else's war.

"The Arabs make the bombs to kill their enemies," said Edward Amakwa, 50, a housecleaner who came to Israel five years ago from Ghana. "They are fighting for a piece of land. It doesn't make any sense. When you die, you are not going to carry this land with you. It doesn't make any sense to kill your neighbors."

John Adu, 45, also from Ghana, said he had left his apartment on a side street to buy some milk.

"I was in the middle of this place, and I heard a boom," he said. "I fell down and people were running and stepping on me."

Adu said he got up, heard the second explosion and fell down again. Then he saw blood on his pants, apparently from an injured person who had brushed by him.

"I began to cry," Adu said. "I thought that I was going die here. I said that if I die, at least I will have died in the Holy Land and maybe God will save me."

Adu and Amakwa said they wanted to stay in Israel. But Amakwa's wife, Sophie, 49, said she at least wanted out of the neighborhood.

"We must leave for another area," she said. "I don't want to live here anymore. This place is danger."

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