Arafat signals regret over bomb attack on Israeli bus

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TUNIS (Reuter) - Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), telephoned Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, to express his 'regret' at a bus bombing in central Israel in which five Israelis were killed, the PLO said yesterday.

The Palestinian news agency Wafa said Mr Arafat conveyed his condolences to families of the victims in the call on Wednesday night as Israelis began Independence Day, celebrating the Jewish state's 46th anniversary.

Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin 'discussed the importance of continuing the peace process despite these events which try to obstruct it', the agency added.

Israeli police said a member of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, killed himself and five Israelis when a bomb he carried on to the bus in Hadera in central Israel exploded on Wednesday.

Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin also discussed the continuation on Sunday of Palestinian self-rule talks between Israel and the PLO in Cairo, Israeli radio said. Israel was to have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, in the West Bank, by 13 April but disputes over security amid rising violence have held up an agreement.

The United States and Israel strongly criticised Mr Arafat for failing to condemn a suicide bombing in northern Israel last week in which seven Israelis and an Arab guerrilla were killed.

President Bill Clinton urged Mr Rabin on Wednesday to complete an agreement with the Palestinians promptly. Mr Clinton telephoned Mr Rabin to express his condolences over the bombing.

The White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, said that during the seven-minute conversation Mr Clinton expressed 'his sense of urgency in concluding the agreement on implementation of the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles'. Both leaders, according to Ms Myers, 'underscored the need to ensure that the enemies of peace do not succeed'.

In Israel yesterday people celebrated the anniversary of their state with picnics while bereaved families buried victims of the bombing. Security forces were on full alert for further reprisals on Independence Day, which Muslim militants had promised to turn into 'hell'.

In Hadera, where the five Israelis were killed and about 30 wounded, festivities were toned down. 'We have decided to restrict Independence Day celebrations,' said the town's mayor, Nehemia Lahav. 'We have a funeral today. We have to mark Independence Day even though we are burying one of those killed today. It is forbidden to cancel Independence Day but the joy is restrained.' Three of the five victims were buried yesterday.