Bombs weaken peace and Peres

 

THE nightmarish task of identifying the charred, mangled remains of bomb victims was under way in Israel last night, after the bloodiest assault yet on the Israeli Palestinian peace process.

Two suicide bombers, trained and equipped by the Gaza based Hamas radical Islamic movement, staged near simultaneous bombings early yesterday morning - the first on a packed bus in central Jerusalem, the second at a soldiers' hitchhiking stop near the southern city of Ashkelon. Police last night put the death toll at 27 - 25 of them in the Jerusalem blast - with 80 people injured many of them seriously. Those figures marked the highest casualty total since the suicide bombers began their campaign two years ago.

In a leaflet issued in Gaza, Hamas claimed responsibility for both blasts, saying they were to avenge January's assassination of the chief Hamas bomb maker, Yihya Ayash, blown up in his Gaza hideout by a booby trapped bomb. Mr Yasser Arafat's Palestinian police force was reported to have arrested dozens of Hamas activists in Gaza last night.

Until this weekend, the Prime Minister, Mr Shimon Peres, was leading the main opposition Likud by 15 per cent or more in opinion polls ahead of May's general elections. Yesterday's bombings, though, given the Israeli public's acute sensitivity to personal security, will have badly dented his chances.

The twin blasts shattered a six month lull in suicide bombings, and came after several weeks of mounting concern in the Israeli and Palestinian intelligence services that a new wave of attacks was imminent. Just a few days ago, Mr Peres had handed Mr Arafat a list of Islamic activists suspected of planning attacks, urging him to take tougher action.

Mr Peres renewed that call for tougher action yesterday, in a telephone conversation in which Mr Arafat condemned the attack unequivocally. Still, Mr Peres made clear that the peace process with the Palestinians would go on. But he announced the suspension of all Israeli Palestinian negotiations until all of yesterday's victims have been buried.

Mr Peres also announced the reimposition of a closure order on the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip - preventing all Palestinians crossing into sovereign Israel. A previous closure order had been lifted only a few days ago.