Palestinian security forces arrest three suspects in bombing attack on U.S. diplomatic convoy

Thursday, October 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Palestinian police arrested three suspects Thursday for a deadly attack on U.S. diplomats, briefly exchanging fire with the militants during a nighttime raid in this crowded shantytown, officials said.

The suspects are members of the Popular Resistance Committees, a group of dozens of armed men from various factions, many former members of the security forces and disgruntled followers of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Israeli officials said the group, formed after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting three years ago, has ties to Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. The Palestinian group has blown up three Israeli tanks with massive remote-controlled bombs in the past three years _ the same technique used in Wednesday's attack, which killed three American security guards and wounded a fourth.

No Palestinian group has claimed responsibility for the first deadly attack against U.S. official targets in the Palestinian areas. The bombing was likely to increase U.S. pressure on the Palestinian leadership to move against militants.

President Bush held the Palestinian Authority partially responsible, saying Wednesday that ``Palestinian authorities should have acted long ago to fight terror in all its forms.''

Involvement by the Popular Resistance Committees could prove particularly embarrassing to Arafat because of the group's links to the security forces.

Palestinians often accuse the United States of siding with Israel, but officials are careful not to cross the line of open hostility to Washington, combining their criticism with appeals for U.S. aid and protection. Arafat and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia condemned Wednesday's bombing.

``It's clear that it is very serious and dangerous, not only against Americans, but against all Palestinians,'' Arafat said Thursday.

The attack could lead to a further U.S. disengagement from the conflict and could deter the international community from sending large numbers of monitors _ a long-standing Palestinian request.

Also Thursday, Israeli forces backed by 50 armored vehicles raided another section of the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border in search of weapons smuggling tunnels. It was the third army raid of a Rafah neighborhood in a week.

A member of the Palestinian security forces was killed and 14 people were wounded in sporadic exchanges of fire, hospital officials said. Two minors were among those hurt.

In Wednesday's attack in Gaza, assailants detonated a remote-controlled bomb packed with dozens of pounds of explosives.

The blast smashed the heavy vehicle, flipped it over and left a crater in the road, the main north-south highway in Gaza. Two of the guards inside were killed instantly, said U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer. Another died on the way to a Gaza hospital, and a fourth was treated in Gaza and then flown to a hospital in the Israeli city of Beersheba, where he was in stable condition.

An FBI team of investigators and forensics experts arrived in Israel on Thursday to investigate the bombing, along with Israeli police.

FBI agents do not intend to go into Gaza immediately. Instead, they will rely on the Israelis to collect and preserve evidence, with the FBI doing the detailed examinations of what is found, FBI officials in Washington said. On Wednesday, U.S. investigators at the scene were greeted by rock-throwing Palestinians.

The three Americans killed were identified as John Branchizio, 36; Mark T. Parson, 31; and John Martin Linde Jr., 30. They had been hired through a contract with DynCorp, a Virginia-based security firm.

The diplomats in the convoy, escorted by Palestinian police, were heading to Gaza to interview Palestinian academics who were seeking Fulbright scholarships to teach or study in the United States.

In the Jebaliya camp, Palestinian police were greeted by gunfire when they arrived in blocks 7 and 8 around midnight to make arrests.

Security forces searched seven homes before making the arrests. One of those arrested was identified as Ahmed Saker, 25.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, violent groups behind scores of deadly bombings against Israelis, distanced themselves from the attack.

The Popular Resistance Committees were formed at the end of 2000, three months after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. They consist mainly of Fatah breakaways and ex-security men. Other factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are also represented.

The group does not have a political ideology, but believes the use of force is the only way to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel relates to the attack as if it was aimed at its own citizens. ``We will do all we can to apprehend those behind the attacks,'' he said.

Following the bombing, the U.S. government advised its citizens to leave the Gaza Strip. Kurtzer said from 200 to 400 Americans, some of Palestinian descent, work there, many for aid groups.

U.S. diplomats at meetings in the West Bank were immediately brought back to Jerusalem, said a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. and Israeli officials said the attack underscored the need to dismantle Palestinian militant groups _ a requirement of the stalled, U.S.-backed ``road map'' peace plan that Palestinian leaders have refused to carry out.

``The failure to create effective Palestinian security forces dedicated to fighting terror continues to cost lives,'' Bush said in a statement. ``There must be an empowered prime minister who controls all Palestinian forces _ reforms that continue to be blocked by Yasser Arafat.''

It was the second attack this year on an American diplomatic vehicle in Gaza, U.S. officials said, pointing to an incident in June in which no one was injured.

U.S. convoys of armored black and silver Chevrolet Suburbans travel in Gaza almost daily and usually take the same route. The convoys are easily identifiable as American, though they don't fly American flags.

The Haaretz daily on Thursday quoted Palestinian security officials as saying they have repeatedly warned American diplomats that the arrangements aren't safe. American officials routinely inform Palestinian security officials in advance of travel plans.

However, U.S. diplomatic official said there were no specific warnings that an attack was planned. The official noted that there are no alternate routes to Gaza City, other than the north-south road.