- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants shifted their focus to American targets yesterday, blowing up a U.S. Embassy convoy in the Gaza Strip, killing three security guards and wounding another.

It was the first deadly strike against the United States in the 3-year-old Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that until now had targeted Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Eyewitnesses said the explosion along a Palestinian-controlled road was detonated by a long gray wire leading into a small concrete building just inside the Jabaliya refugee camp.

President Bush vowed to “bring the terrorists to justice” and blamed the bombing on failure by the Palestinians to create an effective security force to crack down on militants.

The Palestinian Authority scrambled to offer condolences and distance itself from the attack.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the main Palestinian militant groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — denied involvement.

The State Department identified the slain Americans as John Branchizio, 36, of Texas; Mark T. Parson, 31 of New York; and John Martin Linde Jr., 30, of Missouri. All were employees of DynCorp, a Virginia-based security firm.

The wounded American was treated at a Gaza hospital before being transferred to a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

They were riding in the last of three sport utility vehicles that formed a convoy being escorted by official Palestinian security vehicles in the front and rear.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer said the convoy was carrying diplomats who were to interview Palestinian candidates for Fulbright scholarships.

U.S. investigators picking through the charred remains of the vehicle were pelted with rocks by Palestinian bystanders.

The blast gouged a deep crater in the road, and body parts and wreckage were strewn by the roadside alongside the upturned SUV, which had been torn in half. Palestinian paramedics were at the scene.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher blamed the Palestinian leadership.

“Continuation of that violence is because of the failure of the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorist groups and to end their activities,” he told reporters.

The Palestinian Authority had pledged to crack down on militants under conditions laid out in the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace presented at a recent summit involving Mr. Bush, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

The Palestinians have since sought to negotiate truces with hard-line groups but have refused to disarm them.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called the attack “an awful crime.”

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, promised yesterday to employ stronger measures against militants.

“We’ll exert every possible effort to take some security steps,” he told The Washington Times in Jericho. “We will continue to exert our efforts.

“We have exerted efforts already, but not our maximum efforts. Now we will apply our maximum efforts — but only in places where we have security control.”

Mr. Erekat said the slayings were “a shattering and devastating blow to Palestinian interests and to our demands for more Americans to monitor on the ground.”

Incitement against the United States is a common theme of radical preachers who draw huge congregations of worshippers in the West Bank and Gaza.

At a Gaza mosque Friday the imam had called for God to “take vengeance against Israel and its allies,” a diatribe broadcast on official Palestinian television.

Some Palestinians suggested yesterday that the culprits could be a small splinter group or an Iranian-linked cell.

The Israelis said the explosives used were likely to have been smuggled in through a network of tunnels that cross into Gaza from Egypt.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suggested that the killers were from the groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the intifada.

“With Prime Minister [Ahmed] Qureia, I made absolutely clear that we cannot move forward to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without eliminating violence and terrorism,” Mr. Powell said.

The U.N. representative to the Middle East, Terje Roed-Larsen, said the attack was “an ominous widening of the conflict.”

Although 49 Americans, many with dual citizenship, have been caught in the crossfire in the uprising, Palestinian militants have never targeted Americans in attacks.

After the bombing, the U.S. government advised its citizens to leave Gaza. Mr. Kurtzer said 200 to 400 Americans, some of Palestinian descent, work in Gaza, many for aid groups.

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