Israel claims that Syria was behind Tel Aviv suicide bomb

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Israel last night accused Syria of being behind the suicide bomb which killed four Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday night.

Israel last night accused Syria of being behind the suicide bomb which killed four Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday night.

The Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, also pointed the finger at Islamic Jihad, the militant group which is based in Syria, and announced that plans to hand over security responsibilities in the West Bank to the Palestinians would be frozen.

A statement said: "The defence minister ruled that Israel sees Syria and the Islamic Jihad movement are those standing behind the murderous attack in Tel Aviv."

Syria quickly moved to deny the claims. A Syrian Foreign Ministry source said: "Syria has no relation to this operation or any other [operation] and that the [Damascus] office of that group [Islamic Jihad] had been closed."

Syria was widely blamed for the car bomb assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri earlier this month.

Islamic Jihad also reversed earlier denials of involvement by claiming responsibility on a website. "Thank God for the courageous martyr Abdullah Saeed Badran, 21, from Tulkarem who managed to blow himself up at the entrance to the Stage nightclub on the coast of Tel Aviv, killing or wounding more than 50 Zionists," the statement said.

Israeli security officials have now said they may resume assassinations of leaders of Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian security forces yesterday arrested three suspected militants after President Mahmoud Abbas ordered them to bring to justice the organisers of the suicide bombing.

Mr Abbas, who is due to fly to London tomorrow for Tuesday's summit to bolster the Palestinian Authority, held emergency talks with colleagues and security chiefs. The bombing is the most serious challenge so far to the ceasefire called by both sides in the conflict this month.

"We will not tolerate this act," Mr Abbas said before a round of meetings in Ramallah. "We will not allow anyone to sabotage the goals and ambitions of our people."

Despite the claims made on the Islamic Jihad website, there was still uncertainty about who had recruited Abdullah Badran, the Palestinian university student from the West Bank village of Deir al-Ghusun. Badran blew himself up in a queue of Tel Aviv nightclubbers.

As Israeli security chiefs held an emergency meeting last night, Israel stepped up calls for a Palestinian crackdown on militants. But there was no immediate sign of military retaliation, which would effectively end the truce called by the the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and Mr Abbas.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli forces arrested two of the bomber's brothers and four neighbours, including the preacher at the local mosque. It was not clear if all were suspects, or whether the brothers were taken to provide DNA samples for a positive identification of the bomber. Badran's parents said their son had been a devout Muslim, but had no history of militant activity.

There was shock and disbelief among bystanders watching police and rescue workers sifting through the debris and using tow trucks to remove cars wrecked by the blast. Opposite the club, the windows of a busy café had been blown out.

A security guard who was outside the club when the blast occurredsaid: "People had the feeling they were safe. They were completely confident because of the calm. But in Israel anything can happen."

Tzachi Cohen, on his way to DJ one of last night's sessions at the club, was two blocks away when the blast occurred. He sat on the pavement shaking his head, saying he now distrusted the idea of a truce. "The people who were queuing up probably voted for Sharon because he was going to take care of the violence," he said.

Merav Ayush was injured in the blast and taken to hospital. "Suddenly there was this huge explosion and we just ran," she said. "I saw a boy and a girl sitting on the ground. At the entrance to the club there were about 15 people just lying on the floor."

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, demanded that Palestinian leaders find those responsible and "send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated". "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.

Gideon Meir, of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said: "Words are not enough. We must see action. We must see arrests, collecting illegal weapons from those terrorist organisations. The only language they understand is force."