More than 20 hurt in suicide bombing in Israel

 

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in southern Israel this morning, wounding more than 20 people, in the first such attack since the eviction of Jewish settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast in Beersheba, three days after troops killed five Palestinians in a raid on a militant hideout in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, drawing a vow of revenge from the Islamic Jihad group.

The explosion, at the entrance to Beersheba's central bus station, followed a call by US President George W. Bush for the Palestinians to respond to last week's pullout from occupied Gaza by showing "they will fight terrorism".

But Mr Bush, who hopes the Gaza withdrawal will help revive a US-backed peace "road map" envisaging a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, stopped short of demanding President Mahmoud Abbas dismantle militant groups.

Police said the bomber tried to board a bus at the start of the Israeli work week but drew the driver's suspicion and blew himself up as security guards gave chase.

"The driver signalled two security guards to go to him," Uri Barlev, the police chief for southern Israel, told Army Radio. "These two security guards ultimately prevented an attack that could have been a lot worse."

A police spokesman said at least 21 people were wounded in the blast, the two security guards seriously. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the bombing.

"We believe maximum effort must be exerted by both sides to maintain the truce because it's in everybody's interest," he said. "What's needed today is not more violence but more peace."

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters the attack "proves again the Palestinian Authority has to do a lot more in order to stop the terrorists, and I promise you that we'll continue to fight against them everywhere". A suicide bomber last struck on July 12, killing five people outside a shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya. Beersheba

Minutes before today's explosion, Israel Radio broadcast a pledge by Mr Abbas to maintain indefinitely a ceasefire he declared along with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February.

"According to the agreement, the truce is continuing and it's not linked to a time ... and everyone knows that," Mr Abbas told the radio. Palestinian militant factions have said a "period of calm" they announced in March at Mr Abbas's urging will expire at year's end.