TEL AVIV suicide bombing kills 18 outside disco

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Israel called off its self-declared policy of restraint Saturday, just hours after a suicide bomber killed 17 young Israelis and wounded 90 outside a Tel Aviv disco in the bloodiest terror attack in five years.

All but one of those killed and many of the wounded were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The Israeli Cabinet said after a seven-hour emergency session _ an extremely rare occurrence on the Jewish Sabbath _ that it held Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat directly responsible for Friday night's blast and other recent attacks.

Arafat has formed a ``coalition of terrorism'' in the areas under his control, the Cabinet said in the harshest condemnation of the Palestinian leader in eight months of fighting.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Arafat said he was ready to work for an ``immediate and unconditional cease-fire,'' but did not say what steps he was prepared to take.

Israeli Cabinet ministers dismissed the offer, saying they would not take it seriously unless Arafat arrested Islamic militants and reined in his security forces.

The Israeli Cabinet said in a statement it would take all actions necessary to protect Israeli citizens, but did not elaborate.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had declared a unilateral cease-fire, saying that Israeli troops would not initiate actions against the Palestinians, only respond when lives were threatened.

Asked about that truce, Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh told The Associated Press that ``there is no cease-fire because we are under attack.''

Other Cabinet ministers said Israel did not plan to target Arafat directly or recapture areas under Palestinian control.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority ordered its employees to leave their offices, fearing Israeli air strikes. In the past, Israel shelled Palestinian security installations, but not civilian offices.

In the town of Nablus, where an Israeli air raid last month killed 11 policemen, residents were urged to stay indoors.

Israel sealed off Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, barring residents from entering and leaving. In Gaza, Palestinian fishermen were ordered to return to shore, as Israeli patrol boats enforced a sea blockade. Israel also closed crossings from the Palestinian areas to Egypt and Gaza.

Israeli tanks entered Palestinian-controlled territory in the northern Gaza Strip, a first since Sharon had announced 11 days ago that he would unilaterally observe a truce.

The explosion, heard for miles around the city, went off around 11 p.m. Friday in front of the Pacha nightclub in a former aquarium building that faces a promenade lined with restaurants, bars, hotels and office towers.

``I was about to enter (the disco), suddenly I looked in the direction of the blast, I saw people thrown backward,'' said Dudi Nachum, 21. ``I saw parts of a brain, things I have never seen before. It was terrible.''

Scores of police cars and ambulances raced through the jammed streets of the Mediterranean metropolis to reach the scene, where police struggled to push away crowds as helicopters hovered overhead and smoke wafted in the air.

Bodies covered by white and black tarps lay on the ground in front of the entrance to the nightclub. One of the victims appeared to be a girl in her early teens, wearing a red top, her arms and legs sticking out, platform shoes on her feet.

Hospital officials said 17 Israelis were killed, including two sisters, ages 16 and 18. Of the wounded, 15 remained in critical or serious condition Saturday.

The explosive contained ball bearings, nails and screws that caused particularly severe injuries when they flew out in all directions.

About a dozen cars parked in front of the club were heavily damaged by the blast, their windows shattered and pieces of flesh and blood splattered on them. Victims' personal effects, a crushed case of Tuborg beer and Italian mineral water bottles were scattered in the lot.

On Saturday morning, crowds of angry Israelis gathered outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, where the Cabinet was meeting, and at the gates of a mosque across the street from the disco. Demonstrators chanted ``Death to the Arabs'' and demanded that Sharon order harsh retaliation. Several people threw stones at Muslim worshippers emerging from the mosque.

Since fighting erupted last September, 484 people have been killed on the Palestinian side _ including Friday's attacker _ and 104 on the Israeli side.

Friday's blast was the deadliest since a series of suicide bombings by Islamic militants in the spring of 1996.

There were conflicting reports about who was responsible for the attack. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite station said a group calling itself the Palestinian Hezbollah claimed responsility. Abu Dhabi TV said the assailant apparently was a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group from the West Bank town of El Bireh.

Israeli security has been on high alert for such attacks, but has found it impossible to keep attackers from crossing into Israel through the hundreds of miles of borders with West Bank.

Four car bombs over the past week failed to cause fatalities, and Israel stuck to its two-week-old ``unilateral cease-fire'' _ a proclaimed policy of restraint which the Palestinians have dismissed as a publicity stunt.

President Bush demanded Arafat condemn the bombing and call for an immediate cease-fire. And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was horrified by the bombing.

Friday's carnage capped a week after the United States restarted efforts to bring the two sides together again.

Israeli and Palestinian security chief held two rounds of talks and U.S. diplomats met with Israeli officials to discuss implementation of a report by an international commission headed by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell. The report recommended a staged process of an end to violence, confidence-building measures and a return to negotiations.