Suicide bombings kill 23 in Tel Aviv

Two nearly simultaneous suicide bombings rocked central Tel Aviv on Sunday, killing at least 22 people and wounding more than 100 others, Israeli police said. Just hours after the explosions, Israeli forces fired four rockets at targets in Gaza.  A group of women are directed to safety by Israeli police at the scene Sunday’s bombings in Tel Aviv

A wounded man is evacuated from the scene of Sunday's bombings in Tel Aviv.
Sunday, January 5, 2003 Posted: 6:14 PM EST (2314 GMT)
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Two nearly simultaneous suicide bombings rocked central Tel Aviv early Sunday evening, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 100 others, Israeli police said. 
 "We have two serious terror attacks in Tel Aviv, the downtown area of Tel Aviv, which has seen a number of terror attacks," Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said.

Just hours after the explosions, Israeli forces fired four rockets at targets in Gaza.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, initially claimed responsibility for the attack and said the bombers were two Palestinians from Nablus.  But in a fax sent later to CNN on the group's letterhead, the group denied all responsibility.

"The brigade remains fully committed to the legitimate Palestinian leadership headed by Yasser Arafat and stick by it," the statement said.  The group is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

The Islamic Jihad, likewise on the State Department's list of terrorist groups, also claimed responsibility in a phone call to CNN's Beirut bureau, but its militant wing later denied the claim.

[ Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group dedicated to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel.  The group has carried out military operations against Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians. ]

After the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called an emergency meeting of his top Cabinet ministers -- Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom.  The meeting was set to begin at 11:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET).

Sharon held the Palestinian Authority responsible.  "All attempts to lead to a cease-fire, even today, are failing due to the Palestinian leadership that continues to support, fund and initiate terror," he told a group of international students in Jerusalem.

The explosions occurred about 6:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. ET) near a closed bus station in central Tel Aviv, witness Eudi Friedman said.

The neighborhood is home to a large number of immigrant workers and was the scene of another suicide attack in July that left five people dead.

The attack was the deadliest since March 2002, when the bombing of a hotel dining room during a Passover seder killed 29 Israelis and wounded 140.

Kleiman said the explosions went off about 150 meters (165 yards) apart and were timed "very close."

"I heard the explosion, I felt the shock wave.  I realized there would be many casualties," eyewitness Alon Oz told Israel Army Radio, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

"We looked for people who were breathing. I called over to them.  I counted quite a few seriously wounded.  People were lying there," he said.

Yitzhak Teva, a barber who was slightly injured, told Ha'aretz he was cutting hair when the blast went off.

"Half the wall fell on me and I was covered in broken glass," Teva said.  "I shut the shop and then there was the next explosion."

A bystander who only gave his first name, Tomer, told Israel's Channel Two that he ran to help the wounded, Ha'aretz reported.

"I saw a man without a leg. I saw horrible things, people without legs, without arms.  I saw fingers," he said.

Israeli officials said some of the wounded may not have gone to hospitals out of fear they did not have the proper papers to remain in Israel.

Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau said anyone injured, regardless of their legal status, should seek medical care.

"We have made it clear that we will take good care of anyone who will be taken to the hospital," Landau said.  "We're going to see afterwards that they will be fully taken care of." 

Erakat, Bush condemn attacks

Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin was swift to hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for the bombings, saying it "instigated and supported" attacks on Israeli civilians.

But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat condemned the attacks and called Gissin's assertions a "broken record, assigning blame and finger-pointing at us."

He called on the United States to step in to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

"We need the help of a third party," Erakat said.  "We need the help of an American administration because the trust level between us and Mr. Sharon is below zero."

Sharon said talks would not resume until attacks on Israelis ended.

"Our goal is to stop the brutal terror, to achieve calm and quiet," Sharon said.  "Only when the brutal terror is stopped -- only then we will be able to talk peace."

Gissin suggested the attacks may have been intended to influence Israel's January 28 election in which Sharon faces a challenge from Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, a dovish former general.

The last suicide bombing in Israel was November 21, when a Palestinian bomber killed 11 people and wounded 50 on a bus in Jerusalem.

But Gissin said that the "relative calm" has been deceptive because Israeli authorities stopped several planned attacks before they could be carried out.

President Bush denounced the bombings, said White House spokesman Adam Levine.

"He condemns these brutal acts of terror in the strongest possible terms," Levine said. "For those who want to derail the peace process, we are not deterred. People have a right to live in peace and security."

Bush learned of the bombings en route from his Crawford, Texas, ranch to Washington aboard Air Force One, Levine said.