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Bombing kills 3, threatens Mideast cease-fire talks

Security discussions postponed

The scene of Thursday's blast in downtown Jerusalem.  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- In a move that threatened the latest U.S.-sponsored meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials, a suicide bomber Thursday set off a massive explosion in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, killing at least three Israelis and wounding about 40 others, police said.

The blast had quick consequences on the diplomatic front, threatening to roll back progress that stemmed from Vice President Dick Cheney's attempts over the past weekend to broker a cease-fire in the violence that has exploded in the region over the past 18 months.

Israel suspended a scheduled U.S.-sponsored security meeting with Palestinian officials, while the Bush administration ratcheted up its pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to control Palestinian terror groups.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a military wing of Arafat's Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Appearing before cameras several hours after the attack, Arafat said, "We strongly condemn the operation that happened in West Jerusalem today, especially that was directed against the innocent Israeli civilians. We will take all immediate measures."

CNN NewsPass Video
CNN's Christiane Amanpour reports Palestinian sources say the latest suicide bomber was a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (March 21)

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CNN's Mike Hanna reports on a terror attack that kills at least 7 Israelis, committed during fledgling peace talks. (March 20)

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Arafat made no mention of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in his statement but promised to arrest "those who stand behind it. We will not save any effort in doing so. ... We will continue exerting maximum efforts to ensure the success of the mission" of U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni to negotiate a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arafat's words did little to mollify Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"He [Arafat] is responsible for the murderous attacks," said Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin. "He didn't do until now anything in order to advance the cease-fire. He has continued to disrupt the Zinni mission. Israel cannot sustain for a long time a unilateral cease-fire. This should be clear to everyone."

Still, he added, "Israel is committed to the cease-fire and assisting General Zinni in every way it can."

The Israeli security Cabinet met to discuss a possible reaction to the latest attack.

The Israelis killed in the terror attack were identified as Yitzhak Cohen, a soldier from Modi'in, and a couple in their 30s,Tzipi and Gad Shemesh, of Pisgat Ze'ev, according to Israeli newspaper reports.

Palestinian sources identified the bomber as Muhammad Shahayka, 22, an Al Aqsa member from the West Bank village of Talooza, north of the city of Nablus.

He was a former Palestinian Authority policeman who was arrested at the request of Israeli authorities. Until about a week ago, Shahayka was imprisoned in Ramallah.

Gissin said the Al Aqsa Brigades are financed by Arafat. He called on the Palestinian leader to give the Israeli government evidence that he and the Palestinian Authority can control the violence and are doing everything they can to stop it.

The Bush administration has designated Al Aqsa a foreign terrorist organization, a senior administration official told CNN. That designation will allow the U.S. government to block Al Aqsa's finances and also prevent banks from doing business with it. (Full story)

Before Arafat spoke out, he got a tongue-lashing from U S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told the Palestinian leader to arrest those responsible for the attack, according to U.S. officials. (Full story)

"This is the toughest yet," one official told CNN of Powell's phone conversation with Arafat. "He laid everything at his feet. He said Arafat was bringing this upon himself and dashing the hopes of the Palestinian people who are counting on the vision of a Palestinian state we have laid out for them."

Powell was aboard Air Force One en route to Texas with President Bush when he called Arafat. In a speech later, the president said he and Powell reminded leaders of their obligation to protect innocent people and to "stamp out terrorists wherever they hide."

Bush recited a statement he's made before: "If you harbor a terrorist, if you hide a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, you're just as guilty as the terrorists themselves."

Bombing comes amid U.S.-led cease-fire efforts

The bombing occurred along King George Street near the Ben Yehuda mall in a part of Jerusalem that has been a frequent target of terror attacks.

"I was very close to him [the suicide bomber]," a witness told The Associated Press. "I saw him walking, looking here and there, and I saw he looked suspicious. I wanted to call someone, but I didn't have time. Then he blew up. I saw arms and legs flying all over the place."

The explosion came after a joint security meeting with Israelis and Palestinians early Thursday that ended without a cease-fire agreement because of "gaps and differences" on both sides, a senior Israeli defense ministry official said.

The joint security meeting held before the bombing, chaired by Zinni, lasted just more than three hours.

Zinni later met as scheduled with Sharon.

White House officials said they have until Sunday night to decide whether Arafat has met the conditions necessary for a face-to-face meeting with Cheney before next week's Arab summit.

Cheney said Tuesday he would return to the region within days to meet with Arafat if the Palestinians began implementing the Tenet proposal. Named for CIA Director George Tenet, the proposal which calls for negotiating a cease-fire and urges both sides to reaffirm commitments to the Mitchell report. (The Tenet plan)

The Mitchell report calls for a resumption of security cooperation, a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, a denunciation of terrorism and resumption of peace talks.

A Cheney-Arafat meeting will hang on Zinni's assessment of whether Arafat has kept his promise to implement a truce agreement and other security cooperation details included in the Tenet plan, officials said.

Sharon has said he is prepared to let Arafat travel to the summit next week if Arafat implements the Tenet plan.

Arafat has promised Zinni to implement the Tenet plan quickly, increasing security cooperation with Israel and eventually bringing about a truce between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Cabinet adopted a resolution Tuesday night supporting the Tenet proposal.




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