FEB 27 2005



Israeli defense officials on Saturday blamed Syria and a Palestinian militant group based there for a suicide bombing that killed four Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub threatening to shatter an informal truce with the Palestinians and Israel warned it may attack Syria in retaliation.

Syria denied the charges, saying the offices of Islamic Jihad, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the suicide strike, have been closed.


Israel has attacked Syrian targets in the past and will do so again if it deems necessary, a senior Israeli defense official said Sunday. Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said an attack will "send a message to (Syrian President Bashar) Assad" that he must clamp down on Islamic groups based in Damascus, his capital city.


Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz blamed Syria for the suicide bombing Friday in a Tel Aviv nightclub. Four Israelis were killed and dozens of others were wounded in the bombing. But Mofaz stopped short of threatening to attack Syria.


Also, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said the United States is currently leading "an initiative" against Syria, and Israel has to allow it to do so.


Israel has attacked Syrian installations after accusing Damascus-based Islamic groups of masterminding, coordinating and overseeing attacks in Israel.


In 2003, Israeli warplanes bombed a Damascus-area Islamic Jihad base in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed 19 people at a restaurant in Haifa. Last September, a leader of the militant Islamic Hamas group was assassinated in Damascus. Israeli officials tacitly acknowledged involvement in the killing.


In August 2003, Israel sent a clear warning to Assad when its warplanes flew low over Assad's summer palace in Latakia while he was vacationing there. The warplanes reportedly flew so low that windows in the palace shattered.


Along with sparking old tensions between Israel and Syria, the suicide bombing, which broke two weeks of relative calm, has threatened to derail an informal cease-fire declaration by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.


Abbas angrily accused a "third party" of orchestrating Friday's attack to sabotage the Mideast peace process, and his security officials said the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, was involved.


In Beirut, Hezbollah, denied the accusations, and Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group with members in Lebanon and Syria, claimed responsibility, reversing initial denials by its members in the Palestinian territories.


The conflicting accounts created a rare sense of mystery around the attack.


In the past, militant groups have been quick to praise their members for carrying out deadly bombings. But Islamic Jihad waited nearly 24 hours to claim the attack outside a crowded nightclub. The delay raised speculation among Palestinian officials that Islamic Jihad was acting on behalf of Hezbollah.


If the bombing had been planned by militants in the Palestinian territory, Abbas would be under tremendous pressure to crack down. But since it looked as if the bombing was linked to Islamic Jihad in Syria, and perhaps inspired by Hezbollah, Israel was likely to give him more leeway.


Israeli security officials, however, said they might resume assassinating Islamic Jihad leaders in the Palestinian territories because the informal truce no longer applied to them.


Such a move, which Israel recently agreed to halt as part of a reinvigorated peace process after the death of Yasser Arafat and the election of Abbas, would likely mean the end of the carefully crafted Feb. 8 cease-fire.


In a further strain, Mofaz froze plans to withdraw troops from five West Bank towns and hand over security responsibilities to the Palestinians. The handover was among the most significant gestures by Israel after the cease-fire.


The Bush administration strongly condemned the bombing and welcomed the Palestinian leadership's response.


"Such brutal attacks that kill and wound innocent Israelis cannot be tolerated by the Israeli people. Nor should they be tolerated by the Palestinian people, for such attacks undermine their hopes for a better future," the White House said in a statement.


U.S. officials have been in touch with the Palestinians "to urge immediate and credible action" to determine who is behind this terrorist act and to bring them to justice," according to the statement.


Israel and the United States have demanded that Syria close the headquarters of Palestinian militant groups in Damascus and end its support for other militant organizations.


Syria also faces pressure to withdraw troops from Lebanon amid accusations it was behind a massive bombing on Feb. 14 that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 16 other people. Syria has also denied involvement in those slayings.


After initial denials, Islamic Jihad posted an announcement on its Web site claiming responsibility late Saturday. The claim was attributed to the Al-Quds Brigades, the group's military arm. It identified the attacker as Abdullah Saeed Badran, 21, from near the West Bank town of Tulkarem.


The statement said the group carried out the attack after the expiration of a monthlong pause in a period of "calm" that it had promised to the Palestinian Authority. The Arab TV station Al-Jazeera also aired a videotape Saturday showing a man claiming to be Badran vowing to carry out the attack.


"Let the Zionists know that they will not have security. Their houses and their cities' streets will not be safe because this country is not your country. Get out of it," the man said.


But in contrast to the dozens of previous suicide bombings, no celebrations were held in the West Bank on Saturday and militant groups didn't hang the customary posters of congratulations at the bomber's home.







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