Middle East truce shattered as suicide bomber hits club

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The Independent Online

At least three Israelis were killed late last night after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a disco, posing the most serious threat so far to the fragile truce called by Israel and the new Palestinian leadership earlier this month.

At least three Israelis were killed late last night after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a disco, posing the most serious threat so far to the fragile truce called by Israel and the new Palestinian leadership earlier this month.

The bomber detonated the explosives as he joined a queue outside a popular local club called The Stage near the city's seafront just before it opened at around 11.30pm. "A single terrorist exploded in a line of people waiting to get into the club," the Tel Aviv police chief, David Tzur, told Army Radio.

Police said that around 50 wounded had been taken to hospitals in the city and that the three dead did not include the suicide bomber, who was male. As the casualties were taken to hospital an interior minister, Gideon Ezra, visited the scene.

Police did not immediately confirm suggestions by intelligence sources that the bomber came from a village near Gulkaram in the northern West Bank.

The bombing is the first since last November when three people were killed in the Carmel market close to the scene of last night's bombing and the first since Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in January. It casts a heavy shadow over the truce called by Mr Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the London conference called by Tony Blair for next week to bolster support for the PA.

The Palestinian Authority responded last night by saying it would "not be silent" about the bombing and would pursue whoever planned it and "inflict the required punishment".

Police said that the bomber's method resembled that of the two British Muslim militants who carried out an explosion at the nearby Mike's Place nightclub after breaking out of Gaza two years ago.

The initial reluctance of any of the best-known armed factions to claim responsibility last night suggests that the main armed factions remain reluctant to undermine the chances of a formal ceasefire following the month long period of "calm" negotiated by Mr Abbas with the factions a month ago in Gaza.

The "calm" has seen a dramatic reduction in the level of attacks and it was not immediately clear last night whether Israel would respond with military force. The Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, said the government still intended for the disengagement from Gaza to go ahead as planned, and that he would also be going ahead with a meeting with the new Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister, Mohammed Bahlan, to co-ordinate the withdrawal.

Early this morning, rescue workers and forensic scientists were still combing the debris outside the shattered frontage of the club for evidence and any remaining body parts of the victims. Opposite the club, the blast shattered the windows of a café which acted as a late-night haunt for Tel Aviv's twenty and thirtysomethings on the corner of Herbert Samuel Street, which runs along the seafront.

One eyewitness, a security guard who gave his name as Tzachi, 29, said: "There were about 15 to 20 people waiting for the club to open. There was a tremendous explosion and the smell of smoke. People were lying on the ground. I held one woman who had died in my arms. It was a terrible scene'.'

Police and intelligence sources said no faction had credibly claimed responsibility. The AP agency reported that a senior commander of a militant group, who chose to remain anonymous, said the Lebanese group Hezbollah had hired a Palestinian from the northern West Bank to carry out the attack. In Beirut, however, a Hezbollah spokesman denied this.

Reports of a claim by the Islamic Jihad faction in the West Bank were denied by its leadership in statements to two Arab TV stations. Nafez Azzam, a Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, said the militant group had no idea who carried out the attack.

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