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Suicide bomber blasts Israeli cafe

By Matt Spetalnick

Click to enlarge photo

NETANYA, Israel (Reuters) - A Palestinian suicide bomber has blown himself up in a crowded pedestrian mall in an Israeli seaside town, wounding at least 30 people in the first such attack since the start of a U.S.-led war on Iraq.

The militant Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, calling it "a gift" to the Iraqi people, and said some of its own suicide bombers had reached Baghdad to prepare to attack U.S. forces.

The attack came a day after an Iraqi army officer blew up his car at a U.S. army checkpoint and killed four soldiers.

Israeli police said the bomber struck at lunchtime near the Cafe London in Netanya, leaving behind half-eaten meals on blood-spattered tables, after they received intelligence reports of possible violence to mark an annual Arab day of protest.

"The suicide bomber blew himself up near a group of soldiers waiting at the entrance of the cafe for a table," police officer Uriel Bar-Lev told Reuters. Police were checking reports that a cafe guard or a soldier had prevented the bomber from entering.

Sunday was Land Day, when Israeli Arabs hold protests to mark the seizure of some of their lands by Israeli authorities.

After nightfall, Israeli troops backed by helicopters tracked and killed two Islamic Jihad gunmen from the Gaza Strip hiding in an avocado grove after cutting through a border fence in an effort to attack a nearby Israeli kibbutz, the army said.

Israeli police officers said they had beefed up patrols because of the intelligence warnings and out of fear that the U.S.-led war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would inflame new violence in the 30-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Television footage of the bombing site showed the mangled body of the bomber, wearing jeans and missing a leg, outside the cafe in a mall lined with restaurants near Netanya's Mediterranean beaches. Chairs, including a baby's highchair, and bits of flesh littered the pavement.

Medics said at least 30 people had been taken to hospital.

ISLAMIC JIHAD CLAIMS ATTACK

Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, an Islamic Jihad leader in Beirut, said the bomber was a resident of the West Bank town of Tulkarm.

He told Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television that the attack was intended to mark Land Day and present "a gift to the heroic Iraqi people who have won over the world with their steadfastness in the face of this American aggression".

At least 1,959 Palestinians and 727 Israelis have been killed since Palestinian militants launched an uprising in September 2000 after negotiations with Israel on a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip froze.

Israel called on Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian prime minister appointed in a reform drive aimed at curbing violence and reviving peace talks, to take charge and make Sunday's attack "the last terrorist act perpetrated by Palestinians".

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the attack on civilians and urged U.S.-led mediators "to refocus on reviving the peace process".

Israel has accused President Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority of fomenting violence in the uprising, which has diminished somewhat since Washington launched a war on Iraq. Arafat denies the accusation.

Abbas, who needs at least tacit cooperation from Muslim militants for the reforms demanded by mediators to work, had almost five hours of separate talks with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza on Sunday night.

Hamas political leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi described the meeting as a "positive exchange of ideas" but said the idea of an Islamist role in Abbas's government was not discussed.

Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi said he told Abbas "the priority of the Palestinian people now is to stick to the resistance and in light of the continued Israeli aggression in Palestine and the continued U.S aggression in Iraq."

Islamic militants previously rejected Abbas's appointment as irrelevant and vowed to continue attacks against Israel.

The last suicide bombing in Israel was on March 5, killing 17 people on a commuter bus in the northern city of Haifa. Netanya has been the target of at least a dozen suicide bombings and other militant attacks over the past two-and-a-half years.

One year ago, a suicide bomber killed 29 Israelis as they gathered for the Jewish holiday of Passover in a Netanya hotel.

That attack prompted the Israeli army to reoccupy Palestinian cities in the West Bank which, along with most of Gaza, had won self-rule under interim peace deals in 1993.

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