Sharon declares Israel is 'at war' after 15 killed in suicide bombing

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The Independent Online

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded café in Haifa yesterday, killing 15, as Israeli troops tightened their siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

Just hours later, another bomber killed himself and wounded four Israelis outside a clinic in the Efrat settlement, south of Bethlehem.

It was the fifth Palestinian strike since the beginning of the Passover holiday week. At least 43 Israelis have been killed and more than 100 wounded. The bombers targeted Israel's three biggest cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, in as many days.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, said in a brief televised address that his country was at war and called Mr Arafat an "enemy of the free world". "Citizens of Israel," he said, "the state of Israel is at war, a war against terror. We must fight this terrorism, in an uncompromising war to uproot these savages, to dismantle their infrastructure, because there is no compromise with terrorists."

His words were in stark contrast to those of Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, who said earlier: "We don't want to turn it into a world war ... into a regional war. We don't want to turn the entire world against us."

Leaders around the world urged Mr Sharon to show restraint in his offensive and not to harm Mr Arafat. Mr Sharon said last night he would take part in a meeting with Arab leaders if it was called by the United States.

A meeting of Mr Sharon's inner cabinet authorised the army ­ which invaded Ramallah and Beit Jallah, near Bethlehem, last week ­ to broaden its offensive. Last night Israeli tanks entered the West Bank town of Qalqilya from four directions. The hawkish Internal Security Minister, Uzi Landau, said: "We must fight on until victory is clear. We have to wage a war as we know how."

Amram Mitzna, a retired general and mayor of Haifa, the scene of the first suicide bombing yesterday, said: "There is no longer a front and a rear. The whole country is a battlefield."

The Matza café in Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab community, is owned by an Israeli Arab and some of the casualties are believed to be Arabs. The roof of the flimsily-built café, between a petrol station and a supermarket, was ripped back by the blast. Windows and walls were shredded. Shimon Sabag, who witnessed the bombing from a nearby electrician's, ran to help. "I saw people in flames," he said. "I started to get the less seriously wounded out. I saw children too."

Hamas identified the Haifa bomber as Shadi Tubassi, 22, from the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank. "We will continue the martyrdom attacks on Israel until the full withdrawal from Palestinian territory," it vowed. But Israel is digging in and pressing the Palestinians to hand over wanted men believed to be holed up in Mr Arafat's bunker and in the nearby HQ of the Palestinian West Bank security service.

The army imposed a curfew and declared Ramallah a "closed military zone". It warned journalists that they entered the city at their own risk.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said the bodies of four Palestinians were found in the Ramallah town centre. A reporter saw two bodies lying in the street, near 15 Palestinians kneeling against a wall under Israeli army guard. The Palestinian Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, claimedIsraeli troops had stormed Mr Arafat's office building, which has been besieged by Israeli tanks since Thursday. Shots were fired inside the building, he said. Two of Mr Arafat's guards were wounded and unable to receive treatment.

Israel repeated, however, that the Palestinian leader was not a target. The army spokesman, Brigadier-General Ron Kitrey, acknowledged, however, that Mr Arafat was at risk. "He is not sitting in a monastery," he said. "He is surrounded by armed people, including his guards."

According to one Israeli version of events, a gunman emerged from the building and shot at their soldiers. A heavy exchange of fire ensued, but the Israelis denied that they entered Mr Arafat's office.

The Palestinian leader repeated that he was determined to stay in his compound and did not care if he was killed. He likened the Israeli government to Nazis and said: "I am one of the martyrs of my people." He appealed to the international community to intervene and force Israel to pull back.

About 40 Palestinian and international peace campaigners walked through the Israeli barricade into Mr Arafat's office. They found him marooned in two windowless rooms with no running water or electricity.