- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

JERUSALEM A suicide bomber in a crowded pool hall south of Tel Aviv last night killed at least 16 Israelis just moments before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush emerged from a White House meeting prompting Mr. Sharon to vow to "kill" terrorists.
"He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first," he said.
Mr. Sharon immediately cut short his visit and announced he was returning home. At a news conference before departing, Mr. Sharon vowed to retaliate for the attack.
"Israel cannot help but respond in the most serious manner to this situation," Mr. Sharon said.
The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the blast, the first since a suicide bomber, a young woman, killed six persons at a Jerusalem bus stop on April 12.
"It was a suicide bomber carrying a very large explosive charge," deputy police commander Yifrah Sokhovnik told Israeli public television.
"To all appearances, the suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the club," Mr. Sokhovnik said.
Witnesses told Israeli army radio that the blast ripped through a billiard club on the third floor of a building. The ceiling collapsed, and the club appeared to be destroyed, they said.
"There was a massive blast that really hit you in the face," one witness said. "There were just people screaming and screaming from inside the building, covered in blood. Others were just running around, injured."
The attack took place in Rishon Letzion, a town of middle-class Israelis, many of whom commute to Tel Aviv.
The pool hall was apparently unguarded.
"This was the only place that didn't have a guard," Roy, a 23-year-old student, said, pointing to other bars in the vicinity that he said were all staffed by armed doormen.
"Rishon Letzion is the heart of Israel. In Israel, nowhere is safe now. If they can do this here, they can do it anywhere," he said.
Police and rescue crews searched the ruins last night for survivors and bodies. It was not known how many people were inside at the time of the blast, but at least 50 were reported injured.
Officials said several of the injured were taken to hospitals in critical condition.
The attack came amid final negotiations to end a siege at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, threatening to shatter those negotiations as well as U.S.-brokered attempts to end 20 months of fighting.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack and vowed to act against those responsible.
"The Palestinian leadership strongly condemns the violent attacks against Israeli civilians," said a Palestinian Authority statement carried by the official Wafa news agency.
The statement also said the Palestinian leadership would take "deterrent measures against those involved in the grave attack," but it did not say what the measures would be.
Nearly 60 Palestinians have blown themselves up in attempts to kill Israelis since fighting erupted in September 2000.
A suicide attack on March 27 that killed 28 persons at the onset of the Passover holiday triggered Israel's military incursion into the West Bank an effort to halt the bombings by rounding up Palestinians suspected of terrorism.
Only hours before yesterday's attack, Israel appeared ready to pull out of Bethlehem, the last of six major West Bank cities under Israeli occupation.
Negotiators began the day saying they had reached an agreement to end a 36-day siege of the Church of the Nativity.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser told reporters on the barricades that the deal was "a fait accompli."
Drawn by the first wave of hope in more than a month, women began gathering in the alley leading to Manger Square, desperate for news about their sons and nephews.
The failure to conclude the agreement left more than 100 people stranded for the chilly night in the damaged and fetid church, built on the site where Jesus was believed to have been born.
They included some 35 priests, monks and nuns; roughly 70 Palestinian civilians; at least 10 foreign peace activists; and 39 Palestinians accused by the Israelis of terrorism.
The deal fell through because no country would agree to accept 13 Palestinian fighters that Israel demanded be exiled from the region. An additional 26 fighters were to have been exiled in Gaza.
Italy had been expected to accept the 13 men, but officials in Rome said no one had consulted them about the exiles.
"What are the responsibility of the hosting state? How must we keep them? In prison? In a convent? Are they free?" a foreign ministry official said to the Associated Press in Rome.
He said that Rome "never received any information from the parties on the progress of the negotiations, nor were any requests advanced in the past few days from these parties."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought to salvage the agreement in two telephone conversations with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Washington held out hope that Mr. Berlusconi would change his mind.
"We are hopeful that Italy might accept some of the people from the church, and that's what the secretary has been discussing with the Italian prime minister," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
But Italian government sources said Mr. Berlusconi refused to budge.
"Prime Minister Berlusconi made it clear in the conversations that Italy's position does not change," an Italian official was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.
The United States and Israel had hoped to resolve the standoff before the Bush-Sharon meeting in Washington.
But with the church standoff unresolved, and confronted with yet another suicide bombing, Mr. Sharon canceled a meeting with members of Congress, cut short his visit and headed home.
Nicholas Kralev in Washington contributed to this report.


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