Pipe-bomb injures 33 on eve of Mid-East talks

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST 33 people were injured in Israel yesterday when three pipe-bombs exploded on the eve of talks between Israel and the Palestinians at which they will seek to prepare ground for a final peace treaty.

Both sides condemned the attack. The bombs detonated simultaneously in the coastal town of Netanya and led to speculation that they were an attempt to disrupt negotiations in the aftermath of the recent Oslo summit. The attack came five years to the day after a suicide bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv in which 22 people died.

Police said yesterday that they suspected Palestinian militants of planting the bombs, which went off in a busy shopping area, inflicting mostly minor injuries. A fourth suspected device was defused.

Within minutes, the finger of suspicion was pointing at Islamic militants. On Saturday, Izzadin Kassam, the military wing of the Hamas group, faxed a leaflet to a news agency in which it threatened to step up attacks on Israel in response to its policy of expanding West Bank settlements. Hamas denied making the threat.

The peace process is also opposed by extreme right-wing elements in Israel, including settlers. By yesterday evening no one had claimed responsibility. Police said they had arrested two people; Israeli Army Radio said they were a man and a woman, both Palestinian.

The attack came as the chief negotiators were due to sit down face-to- face in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a far remove from the glamorous surroundings of Oslo, where Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, and President Bill Clinton attempted to give fresh momentum to the search for peace.

Today's talks are expected to deal with procedural issues, such as when meetings will be held of the six sub-committees dealing with issues including the right of return for Palestinian refugees, water, settlements, economic relations and the status of Jerusalem. Progress can be expected to be slow, despite a timetable under which a framework agreement should be completed by February, with the signing of a final-status agreement by September. The chief Palestinian negotiator in today's talks, Yasser Abed Rabbo - who will face an Israeli team led by Oded Eran, an ex-ambassador - said the bombing would "harm the atmosphere".

Although a relatively small-scale attack by Middle East standards, it prompted Mr Barak to issue a statement intended to suggest Palestinians were to blame. It said the government was "determined to smash terrorism" and urged Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority to "act effectively to prevent terrorists from harming the chances of progress in the peace process". The failure to contain militants is frequently cited as a factor in the decision by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, to put the peace process on ice.

Although the timing of the bombing seems more than coincidental, the possibility that the motive was criminal rather than political was not entirely discounted last night. Netanya is a hub of gangster activity, where pipe-bombs have been used to settle scores.

r The son of President Hafez Assad of Syria, meeting a Western leader for the first time, said Europe can play a "very important" role in bringing Syria and Israel together. Colonel Bashar Assad, reportedly being groomed to succeed Mr Assad, met President Jacques Chirac in Paris as a flurry of diplomatic activity began on the eve of visits by Mr Arafat and Mr Barak.