Sharon vows to hit back against Palestinians

 

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to hit back hard against Palestinian militants after 15 people died in a suicide bombing in Israel that undermined renewed Middle East peace efforts.

Mr Sharon cut short a visit to the United States to return to Israel, where he will face pressure to crack down again on the militants.

At the same time, he came under fresh international criticism for the Israeli army's recent six-week offensive in the West Bank, with the United Nations voting to condemn it.

Palestinian leader Mr Yasser Arafat, facing the possibility that Israel will expel him from the region, today said he is willing to wage "war on terrorism."

In the aftermath of last night's pool hall suicide bomb blast, Mr Arafat directed his security forces to work to foil Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians.

However, Mr Arafat said, his police were too weak to carry out his orders.

Israeli Education Minister Mr Limor Livnat said the government would consider expelling Mr Arafat from the Palestinian territories in response to the attack.

In his statement today, apparently designed to forestall new Israeli reprisals, Mr Arafat pledged his support for the international community's war on terror.

The suicide bombing last night clouded the painstaking effort to end the army's 37-day siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where a deal that would take militants trapped inside into exile was on hold until a country could be found to take them.

The bomb exploded in a billiards club in Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv, last night just before Mr Sharon and Mr Bush met at the White House to discuss the Middle East crisis.

An Israeli police spokeswoman revised down the death toll, saying that the device, packed with nails and metal shards, killed 14 people as well as the bomber and wounded at least 60. The toll had previously been put at 15 plus the bomber.

It was the fourth suicide bombing since Israel launched its offensive on March 29th in the West Bank aimed at uprooting bombers and the first since April 12th, when a bomb at Jerusalem's main outdoor market killed at least six people.

"I say today Israel will not surrender to blackmail...he who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first", Mr Sharon told a news conference before breaking off his visit to Washington and flying home. He will meet with political allies tomorrow to discuss Israel's next move.

The UN General Assembly voted to condemn the West Bank offensive but 54 countries were jolted into abstaining after news of the bomb. The vote was 74 to 4 with 54 abstentions.