Suicide blasts kill 15 at Israeli cafe, near army base


JERUSALEM - Two Palestinian suicide bombings hours apart yesterday killed at least 15 people and injured dozens at a trendy Jerusalem cafe and at a crowded bus stop outside an army base southeast of Tel Aviv, plunging the region into further turmoil.

The attackers, apparently from the militant group Hamas, also died in the explosions that came on a tense day in which police throughout Israel had set up roadblocks and sealed off communities amid a flurry of warnings of imminent attacks.

In both places, normally placid streets were strewn with body parts, backpacks and torn clothing. In Jerusalem, Perah Tiab had just turned up an alley beside the Hillel Cafe in the German Colony neighborhood when the bomb went off, showering her with debris.

"It was like the sky was bleeding," the 41-year-old woman said through sobs. "When will this end? We can't go on like this."

Police said seven people were killed and more than 40 injured in the Jerusalem bombing about 11:20 p.m. Earlier, eight soldiers died and more than 15 were wounded in the rush-hour attack in Tzrifin, near a military complex of the same name, they said.

Israeli officials said they would probably expand their military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and step up targeted killings of members of Hamas. There has also been growing talk among Israeli leaders of exiling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or tightening the siege on his compound.

Government radio reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expected to cut short his trip to India and return this evening to assess the security situation.

The bombings were certain to complicate a stalled U.S.-backed peace plan and the formation of a new Palestinian government after Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was supported by the United States and Israel, suddenly resigned Saturday.

Abbas cited internal obstacles in reforming the Palestinian Authority and blamed Israel for not making enough concessions to hold together a fragile cease-fire entered into by militant groups in June that lasted 50 days.

Arafat nominated a new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, who has made his acceptance conditional on Israel's freeing Arafat and stopping its targeted killings of militants. He said only then would he have the legitimacy to force Hamas and other armed factions to agree to another cease-fire. He pleaded to Israel: "Please help me."

Qureia condemned the bombings, which were apparently claimed by Hamas as retaliation for a string of assassinations of its members, including a failed attempt last weekend to kill the group's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, by dropping a bomb on an apartment building in Gaza where he and other Hamas leaders were meeting.

"After the two attacks in [Tel Aviv] and Jerusalem, despite all the Israeli security precautions, we told the Zionists it was payback time," said a statement issued by the military wing of Hamas that was sent to the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera. A Hamas leader in Gaza praised the attacks but did not directly claim responsibility.

The region is now back into a familiar, deadly pattern of attack and counterattack, and an equally familiar stalemate between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, with each side reluctant to make the first move toward restoring order and returning to the peace plan known as the road map.

In the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, the Israeli army laid siege to a seven-story apartment building in a search for wanted Hamas militants and killed two of them during hours-long gunbattles. A 12-year-old boy also was killed when he fell from a third-story balcony next door. Army officials said he fell either after a stray tank shell hit the building or it was struck by shrapnel. In Gaza, the army said soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who was planting a bomb near an army position.

Gideon Meir, a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called a new cease-fire unacceptable and said the Palestinians must dismantle and disarm militant groups and end violence. He blamed Arafat for the collapse of Abbas' Cabinet.

The question for Israel, Meir said, is "will the new prime minister be able to create the big revolution and take the Palestinian Authority from the way of terror and murder to the path of peace and tranquillity?"

Fearing revenge attacks, Israeli authorities have been on high alert since Saturday. Yesterday, hundreds of police officers deployed in Jerusalem after receiving intelligence reports that a bomber had infiltrated the city.

The owner of Cafe Hillel, on Emek Refaim Street, added an extra security guard at the front door.

Cafe Hillel is an expansive cafe with large plate-glass windows and outdoor seating. Many residents feared that it was an inviting target because of its proximity to the sidewalk and the ability of a bomber to do major damage without having to get inside.

Rami Abu Bitam, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who is one of the cooks, said the cafe was only half full last night because of the warnings. "We were extra careful tonight," said Bitam, who was in the kitchen during the attack and emerged unharmed. "We told the owner to put on two guards."

Police and witnesses said the bomber walked up Emek Refaim Street - which runs through the heart of the upscale neighborhood and is lined with restaurants - and paused outside a pizza shop. Workers noticed the Palestinian and the backpack he was carrying, and shouted at him.

The man ran next door to Cafe Hillel, where police said he got past the security guards to step a few feet inside. He blew himself up as the guards tried to push him outside. It was unclear if the security guards were among the dead.

The explosion shattered the windows and caved in the front part of the roof, leaving a black awning dangling and sending plastic coffee cups, napkins and customers' belongings into the street. Red bags of coffee remained neatly stacked near a cash register, and a white pillar was smeared with blood.

Moments after the blast, rescue workers rushed to the scene as waves of frightened, crying people ran the other way. One girl wailed as blood streamed down her face from a gash above her eyes, and a paramedic wrapped her head with gauze. A man lay on a stretcher, his left arm mangled and his chest sliced from broken glass and bolts packed into the bomb.

Gilad Gendin, 21, frantically shouted into a cell phone and rushed around in a futile search for a friend. "I think he's injured or dead," he said. The cafe's waiters, still wearing their black aprons, gathered for a count to determine if anyone was missing and then rushed off to hospitals.

Among those killed was Dr. David Appelbaum, the emergency room director for Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

The attack outside the Tzrifin army base occurred about 6 p.m. as dozens of soldiers were waiting for buses or trying to hitchhike home. The bomber, wearing civilian clothes and carrying a leather bag, walked by two armed security guards and into the crowd of soldiers, many carrying M-16 rifles, and blew himself up.

Cpl. Nourit Betzer, an army medic, has been in the vicinity of six suicide bombings in the past three years, some as part of her duties, others as she was out enjoying a good time. She is 20 years old. Yesterday, she would have been at the stop had her new commander not pulled her aside for a meeting.

She heard the blast and rushed to help, all the time recalling a bombing at a nightclub 2 1/2 years ago in which she went from body to body looking for her friends after a night of dancing. "It's always the same," she said, standing in sight of a severed leg. "The smells, the screams, the blood."

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