Explosion goes off in Ramallah

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The Independent Online
An explosion ripped through an office of Force 17, a Palestinian security service, in downtown Ramallah during evening rush hour today, lightly injuring three officers. The cause of the blast was shrouded in mystery.

An explosion ripped through an office of Force 17, a Palestinian security service, in downtown Ramallah during evening rush hour today, lightly injuring three officers. The cause of the blast was shrouded in mystery.

Witness Awad Khader said the blast went off inside the two–story building, and the nature of the damage supported that claim. The blast blew off part of the roof of the building, leaving a nearby parking lot and street strewn with rubble.

A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the building had been struck by an Israeli helicopter gunship, but other Palestinian security officials disputed this claim.

The Israeli army said it was not involved. "We don't know of any Israeli involvement in this event," said an army spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz.

Force 17 had been using one suite in the building, a former restaurant, for about a week, and only a few officers had been stationed there. Immediately after the blast, several gunmen angrily fired in the air and scuffled with each other.

Palestinian police confiscated film from photographers and TV crews and deployed officers at photo labs to prevent images from being developed, suggesting that the explosion might have been an internal matter.

Residents of the area said an explosion was also heard in the area on Wednesday, but caused no damage, and afterwards, Palestinian security officials arrived and tried to calm bystanders by saying a gun had gone off.

The blast came after a day of heavy Palestinian mortar fire on Israeli targets in the Gaza Strip, and Israeli officials pledged to respond to the continued violence.

"We will respond to every action against us. We will act with a heavy hand ... until they stop all terror and this war of attrition," said Israeli Interior Minister Eli Ishai, a member of the Israeli security Cabinet that met today.

Israel has accused Force 17 of playing a central role in shootings at Israelis traveling on West Bank roads, and has targeted Force 17 installations in the past.

In the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for a mortar attack late Wednesday on the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. A Hamas member, Khalil Sakani, was seriously wounded in the head by shrapnel from Israeli tanks shells fired in response to the mortar attack.

Hamas also released a video showing three hooded members firing several mortar shells toward an empty field. It was not immediately clear whether the video showed an actual attack or a simulation.

Today, two more mortars landed harmlessly near the settlement of Atzmona in Gaza. On April 3, a mortar shell wounded a baby at the settlement.

The renewed mortar fire came despite two Israeli incursions into Palestinian–controlled areas of Gaza that were aimed at stopping such attacks. It left Prime Minister Ariel Sharon open to criticism from many quarters within Israel.

The Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, including the brief occupation of a square–mile slice, drew a strong U.S. condemnation, and Sharon spoke on Wednesday to U.S. President George W. Bush to try to clear the air.

Sharon told Bush the Israeli army "will have no choice but to carry out preventive measures" if the mortar fire persists, a statement by Sharon's office said. It was not clear whether such measures included more incursions.

Sharon convened his security Cabinet to discuss the mortar attacks, after stiff criticism from some of its members for his failure to consult them about the incursion and its quick reversal.

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