Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Abbas demands arrest of militants behind bombing


Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas ordered security services yesterday to arrest militants behind a Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed 18 people, wounded more than 100 and shattered a truce key to a US-backed peace plan.

Abbas, who also cut off contact with Islamic militant leaders, acted after Israel shelved a mooted handover of occupied cities to Palestinian control, froze all high-level talks and reimposed a clampdown on the West Bank.

With the troubled "road map" peace plan that promises a Palestinian state in jeopardy, Abbas also planned to convene his Cabinet shortly to decide on other security measures against Islamic militants his government hitherto hesitated to take.

"Instructions have been given to Palestinian security services to pursue those who were behind the operation and to bring them to justice. ... The Cabinet is to look into [other] security measures to be taken," Information Minister Nabil Amr said in Ramallah, West Bank seat of Palestinian government.

"There are clear instructions to security forces to follow these people, find them, put them under arrest. We have to use our authority to contain this tough situation and to stop the negative developments," he told reporters.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon consulted top security officials to discuss the way ahead after the attack, a severe setback for a peace plan aimed at defusing a militant revolt and granting Palestinians statehood in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

A Hamas bomber from the West Bank city of Hebron blew up a bus packed with ultra-Orthodox Jewish families returning from a daily pilgrimage to Jerusalem's Western Wall shrine, rocking a seven-week-old ceasefire underpinning the peace plan.

Israeli authorities initially reported 20 dead but reduced the toll to 18, including a baby girl that died in hospital, after checks with a mortuary that took in the bodies. The figure did not include the bomber himself.

The attack was a stinging embarrassment to Abbas's moderate government and its stated effort to staunch violence to qualify for a state, for it occurred as he was talking with militant faction chiefs in Gaza about firming up the flimsy truce.

"It was decided after these meetings in Gaza City that the Palestinian Authority would stop all forms of dialogue with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad [for the time being]. It holds them responsible for harming the higher national interest of the Palestinian people," a senior security official said.

It was unclear how Abbas would crack down on militants as Palestinian security forces in the West Bank were crippled by Israeli offensives against militants. Recent attacks, including Tuesday's, emanated from cities now in Israel's military grip.

Abbas has also struggled to wrest effective power over the security organs from President Yasser Arafat, who has been accused of fomenting violence by Israel and the US.

Abbas condemned the bus blast, saying it "does not serve the interests of the Palestinian people."

He has denounced previous bombings in similar terms. But to date he has hesitated to break up the popular militant groups, citing a fear of civil war unless Israel has lifted occupations and checkpoints of West Bank cities first.

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Hebron arrests raise specter of `underground'

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