Failure of suicide bid sparks new ultimatums for Arafat

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Israel narrowly escaped another bloodbath that would have propelled the Midde East even deeper into war when a middle-aged suicide bomber detonated himself outside a Jerusalem hotel.

The bombing, claimed by Islamic Jihad, wounded only three people but it set off another round of demands from Israel and the United States, its closest ally, for Yasser Arafat and his bomb-battered security forces to take urgent action against Palestinian militants, and soon.

President George Bush is increasing the pressure on the Palestinian leader to resolve the crisis, in the belief he has the power to curb popular Islamic-nationalist opposition groups, especially Hamas, which are committed to attacking Israel.

But Israeli newspapers said yesterday that the US President on Sunday persuaded Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, not to harm Mr Arafat during its military assaults on security buildings in towns across the occupied territories. "I promised Bush I wouldn't touch Arafat, but I can get close to him," Mr Sharon reportedly told his cabinet, after it agreed to brand the Palestinian Authority a "terror-supporting entity."

The Palestinian leader, holed up in his his Ramallah headquarters with Israeli tanks near by, made a fresh appeal yesterday to the Israelis to "cool down", after they used F-16 jets and helicopters to bombard security headquarters in the West Bank and Gaza in their biggest operation since the start of the intifada.

Yesterday these operations, which have killed two already, including a 15-year-old boy, and injured more than 100, were suspended, almost certainly because of bad weather. Israeli officials have threatened to stage continuous attacks if Mr Arafat does not respond swiftly and effectively to their demands.

On US television, Mr Arafat appealed to be given a chance to rein in the paramilitary extremists in the aftermath of the triple suicide bombings of Saturday and Sunday in Jerusalem and Haifa, which killed more than 25 Israelis, and injured several hundred. He said he had rounded up 131 militants in the past 48 hours, although this was regarded sceptically by Israeli officials who say his prisons have a "revolving door" policy.

The latest attack, the fourth suicide bombing on Israel's side of the 1967 Green Line in as many days, came early on a rainy morning as the bomber was crossing a road, not far from the King David Hotel, where the US envoy, ex-Marine general Anthony Zinni is staying, having completed a week in the region in which his peace mission has so conspicuously failed.

Israeli police said the suicide bomber's belt of explosives detonated prematurely. Three people at a nearby bus stop were hit by flying glass.

In a gruesome description, officials said the blast severed the bomber's head and blew it into an unoccupied guest room on the first floor of another nearby hotel, The David Citadel.

The Jerusalem Brigades of the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, and identified the bomber as Daoud Ali Ahmed Abu Sway, a man in his mid-forties, from the West Bank village of Artas. The village is near Bethlehem, where more than a dozen Palestinians were killed after the Israeli army reoccupied parts of the town in the aftermath of the assassination of a cabinet minister by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The Islamic Jihad said in a statement that Sway was on his way to attack a security target inside a hotel, where it said "Zionist" leaders were present. Israel Radio said Uzi Landau, the Public Security Minister, was in the hotel at the time.