Suicide bomber in Tel Aviv injures 25

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A Palestinian suicide bomber wounded at least 25 people in an attack on a crowded pedestrian area in Tel Aviv yesterday, only hours after Israeli forces had assassinated another Islamic militant.

Yesterday's bombing had been expected in Israel, which late last night struck back, sending Israeli F-16 warplanes to attack Palestinian security installations in Gaza City. At least two people were wounded in the missile strikes, Palestinian medical officials said.

After the suicide bombing, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority issued a statement saying that it "condemns any action that harms Israeli civilians", but this was dismissed by Israel which said it was responsible for a policy of terror.

The suicide bomber was a member of the Islamic Jihad group, the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla group's television station, Al Manar, said. It identified the bomber as Safwat Abdurrahman Khalil, a member of the Jerusalem Brigades.

The blast, which killed the bomber instantly, was close to Tel Aviv's old bus station, a down-at-heel area in the south of the Israeli city filled with cafés, bars and shops used by foreign workers. It shattered windows and overturned tables. A witness said: "There was a big boom. I saw three or four people on the ground. There was smoke and a lot of panic."

The attack was clearly meant as another attempt by Palestinian militants to show Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, he cannot fulfil his promise to provide security to Israelis, despite a blockade of the occupied territories and repeated assassinations. In a march in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Mr Arafat's compound is encircled by Israeli troops, thousands of Palestinians chanted in Hebrew "no security, no security".

The Tel Aviv attack added to a rise in violence, which has driven the Middle East crisis to new, and still more dangerous heights, including the killing last week of six Israelis by a gunman who burst into a bat mitzvah party, and the murder of two elderly women shot at a bus stop in west Jerusalem.

On Thursday, six Palestinians were killed, including Bakr Hamdan, a 26-year-old leader of Hamas who was assassinated in a missile attack on his car by an Israeli helicopter. Earlier in the week Israeli commandos killed four senior members of Hamas's military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, in a raid on Nablus.

Colonel Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, said: "The only way out of this cycle of violence is for Israel to declare that it will stop its aggression ... and return to serious negotiations."