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4 killed in blast outside Tel Aviv nightclub

TEL AVIV, Israel—A suicide bomber shattered an informal truce between Israel and the Palestinians late Friday night, killing four other people and wounding dozens more who were lined up in front of a karaoke club near a popular beachfront promenade.

The familiar scene of shattered windows, pools of blood and debris raised the specter of a resumption of violence that in 4 { years has killed approximately 5,000 people. But unlike nearly all past suicide attacks, no Palestinian militants claimed credit Friday night.

Anonymous calls to several news agencies said two Palestinian militant groups—Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—had carried out the attack. But spokesmen for the groups denied involvement, saying they were committed to the cease-fire that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas negotiated this month.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah also denied involvement. Hezbollah, which is strongly backed by Iran, is widely seen as trying to scuttle the budding Middle East peace process and is considered a prime suspect this time.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat quickly appeared on Israeli television to condemn the attack.

"We wholly condemn the attack because it undermines the peace process," Erekat said. "It is not justified and we will find whoever is behind it, sabotaging the peace process."

Abbas later met in emergency session with his security chiefs and called for a joint investigation with Israel into the bombing.

"The Palestinian Authority will not stand silent in the face of this act of sabotage," Abbas said in a statement. "We will follow and track down those responsible and they will be punished accordingly."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke with his defense minister and security chiefs to decide how Israel should respond. His spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Israel would "take whatever steps necessary to protect its citizens."

"The concept on which they (the Palestinian Authority) built this renewed hope and agreement and compromise with terrorist groups collapsed tonight," Gissin said. "Condemnations and excuses aren't going to bring back the dead or heal the wounded."

Gissin said Abbas would have to dismantle militant groups, arrest members and collect weapons, something Abbas has thus far refused to do.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strongly condemned the attack and called for swift Palestinian action.

"It is essential that Palestinian leaders take immediate, credible steps to find those responsible for this terrorist attack and bring them to justice," she said. "We understand that the Palestinian leadership has condemned the attack. We now must see actions that send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated."

The bombing came roughly two weeks after Abbas and Sharon met in Egypt and agreed to halt attacks between Israelis and Palestinians. That meeting followed a surprising but steady thaw in relations following the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in late November and raised hopes that further steps toward peace might follow.

The 11:30 p.m. bombing in front of the Stage club came as patrons were lining up outside. Maj. Gen. David Tzur, Israeli police Tel Aviv district commander, said security guards stopped the bomber from going inside. Moments later, the bomber exploded under the nightclub's marquee.

For hours afterward, dozens of rescue workers sifted through the debris searching for human remains while police with bomb-sniffing dogs searched for explosive residue and evidence. Several bodies covered in white sheets lay on the ground.

Tzur said they were looking into eyewitness reports that the bomber had an accomplice. The manager of a small supermarket across the street said two men—one apparently the bomber dressed in a big jacket and the other a nervous, rambling fellow—came to his shop minutes before the blast to ask for change.

"Parts of bodies blew up and landed on (my) car," said a witness who would give only his first name, Zachi. He said he helped load about 20 people into ambulances.

It was the first suicide bombing in Israel since the Nov. 1 bombing in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, which killed three people as Arafat lay dying in a Paris hospital.

Friday night's attack took place near the Dolphinarium, where a suicide bomber killed 21 young Israelis at a disco on a Friday night in June 2001. Local television commentators noted that since then, fewer weekend revelers had been showing up at such places, but peace overtures since Arafat's Nov. 11 death had prompted bigger nighttime crowds on Tel Aviv's seafront.

Passers-by were in shock, but no one seemed surprised at the attack. "They say in the Bible there's only been 40 years of peace in this country and that was during King Solomon's time," said Leo Bracha, 34, a cook who arrived on the scene after the bombing. "This has always just been a question of time."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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