Special squad set to hunt terrorists

Tel Aviv suicide blast: Peres says force may enter Palestinian self-rule areas but denies that he is jettisoning peace process
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Within hours of a suicide bomber detonating a charge of explosives in central Tel Aviv, killing at least 12 Israelis and wounding 100, the government said it was setting up a special task force to hunt down those who organised the attacks. Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, did not deny that the force might enter Gaza and the other Palestinian autonomous areas.

It was the fourth bomb in nine days and came the day after an attack on a bus in Jerusalem killed 18 people. It was exploded by a man who tried to enter Dizengoff Shopping Centre and blew himself up when he was turned back. The attack came despite a statement from the bombers on Sunday declaring a three-month truce. Hamas has now killed at least 56 people in nine days.

"It was a single terrorist who blew himself up at the crosswalk of the Dizengoff Centre," said Ronnie Milo, the mayor of Tel Aviv. "One of the things that saved a lot of people is that he could not enter the Dizengoff centre, so he had to commit this foul act outside the closed-off structure because of the police presence."

The centre was full of children and teenagers in fancy dress celebrating the Jewish Purim holiday. An eyewitness and mother of one of the casualties said: "Glass fell all around us. My daughter has a hole in her back. We were covered in glass. It was terrible." Later crowds gathered, lighting bonfires and shouting: "We want war" and "Death to the Arabs".

Last night the Israeli army issued an order forbidding Palestinian residents from leaving their towns and villages. The order, which affects some 1.2 million Palestinians, will last "until further notice," the army said.

At a press conference last night, Mr Peres said the men behind three of the bombings - two in Jerusalem and one in Ashkelon - had been arrested by the Palestinian police. He said the aim of a new security force, led by Ami Ayalon, head of the Shin Bet internal security organisation, would be "to hit, punish and hurt the people behind the contemptible terrorism - the men of Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

After an emergency cabinet meeting to decide on measures to combat the bombers, Mr Peres looked confident, in sharp contrast to what was seen as a feeble performance after the first Jerusalem bomb. He said the houses of those involved in bombings would be sealed.

Administrative detention, that is detention without trial, had already started. Asked if these measures would destroy the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, Mr Peres seemed to go out of his way to underline that in taking military action against Hamas he was not jettisoning the peace process. He said he would prefer to deal with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, than see the PLO "return to terrorism, the intifada and suicide bombings on top of that". Nevertheless, Mr Peres said the new task force was to "reach every corner where this terror is rooted".

Israel has been gradually withdrawing troops from the West Bank and Gaza Strip since a 1993 peace deal with the PLO. It has refrained from sending its army into areas controlled by the Palestinians to fight Muslim militants.

Palestinians insisted they were hunting the Qassem military wing of Hamas.

Gaza's police chief, Ghazi al-Jabali, said: "The outcome of the Israeli decision will not be favourable. We have done and will continue to do what we can to fight terrorism but to enter Palestinian areas is a violation of the agreement."

With elections due on 29 March, Mr Peres is vulnerable to attacks from the right that his attempts to broker peace are costing Israeli lives. Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud party, said yesterday that the bombings had belied the basic premise of the Peres government, that giving the Palestinians control over West Bank and Gaza land would lead to greater security for both sides. He added: "We can't accept the idea that the Jewish people will be slaughtered in our own state."

The attacks have already taken their toll on prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel suspended peace negotiations with Syria after yesterday's bombing. And Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gad Yaacobi, said the "general feeling" in his country was that peace was on hold until "the security of the people of Israel will be ensured".