Palestinian suicide bombers kill 26

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The Independent Online
Two Palestinian suicide bombers yesterday killed 24 people and wounded almost a hundred in attacks that are likely to seriously damage the election campaign of Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The first explosion came on board a bus stopped at a traffic light during the early morning rush hour on Jaffa Street in central Jerusalem. The bomber exploded a 20lb charge that ripped apart the red and white bus, tearing off its roof and killing 22 people as well as himself.

Itzik Rubin, a bus inspector, said: "I was coming from the bus station and I saw a body flying out of the bus, which landed a few metres away. I saw people trapped inside, both alive and dead. Some people cried out from the bus: 'I am burnt, I am burnt. Help me'."

A second suicide bomber blew himself up, killing one Israeli, at a hitchhiking spot much used by soldiers on the main road outside the coastal city of Askelon. Both attacks were later claimed by the military wing of the Islamic organisation Hamas. It said they were in revenge for the assassination last month of Yahyah Ayyash, the mastermind of their suicide-bombing campaign, by the Israeli security services.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians were temporarily suspended by Mr Peres, who also ordered routes between Israel and the occupied territories be closed to Palestinians. He said negotiations would continue, but the bombs have put in doubt the likelihood of his government winning a clear- cut victory in the general election on 29 May.

Mr Peres called the election in the wake of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, his predecessor as prime minister, who was shot dead in November. Polls showed that peace with the Palestinians was approved by 59 per cent of Israelis. The bombs yesterday, the most devastating suicide attacks ever on Israel, now put this in doubt.

When Mr Peres visited the scene of the Jerusalem bomb yesterday he was jeered, largely by a crowd of ultra-orthodox Jews, in a way that has not happened since the murder of Mr Rabin. Some shouted: "With blood and fire we will throw out Peres." In the wake of the bombings the right will find it easier to oppose an agreement with the Palestinians in the election campaign.

Retaliation for the killing of Mr Ayyash had been expected, but not on the devastating scale of yesterday. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinians, denounced the bombs as terrorism, saying: "It is not only against civilians, it is against the whole peace process." In recent days he appeared to come close to getting Hamas to end its military operations. Israel is now demanding the arrest of all known Islamic militants in the areas Mr Arafat controls.

Mr Peres said that Israel would stick to its commitments, which means pulling its forces out of most of the southern city of Hebron in March and starting talks about a final agreement with the Palestinians in May. Refusing to answer questions about damage to his electoral prospects, he said: "I know deep in my heart that on the way to win peace, we shall have to pay a heavy toll for it."