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Sharon: 'The battle continues'

Suicide bombing kills 15

Sharon: "He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon angrily condemned Tuesday's suicide bombing that killed 15 people and wounded dozens more at a crowded Israeli billiard hall and vowed that Israel would act to stop Palestinian terror attacks.

"The battle continues and will continue until all those who believe that they can make gains through the use of terrorism will cease to exist -- cease to exist," Sharon said. He said Israel would defend itself and that "he who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first."

The powerful explosion ripped through the club in Rishon Letzion, a coastal town about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv. The blast caused the building's ceiling to collapse and trapping some people in the rubble, an Israeli ambulance service spokesman said.

Emergency workers said at least 57 people were wounded: Mark Regev, an Israeli official in Washington, said the Israel Defense Forces reported 20 of the wounded were in critical condition. At least one of the victims died in the hospital.

The billiard hall was part of an entertainment complex popular with young people in an industrial area of Rishon Letzion, a mostly middle-class Jewish city with a population of about 100,000.

About two hours after the bombing, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat issued a statement condemning the attack "in the strongest possible terms."

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Sharon learned of the bombing while he was at the White House for a meeting with President Bush. He cut short his visit to Washington and returned to Israel after the attack. (Full story)

"I depart now to Israel with a heavy heart, heavy with grief and heavy with rage -- the rage of every man and woman in Israel; the rage of each and every Jew in the world; the rage of all those who share our values of freedom, liberty and democracy," he told reporters Tuesday night.

"Israel will fight for these values. Israel will fight anyone who tries to threaten these values. Israel will fight anyone who tries, through suicide terrorism, to sow fear," he added. "Israel will fight. Israel will triumph, and when victory prevails, Israel will make peace."

Sharon said the Israeli Cabinet would meet to discuss Israel's response once he returns to Israel. He said there was no way to move forward with peace until there is reform in the Palestinian Authority, which he called "a terrorist and corrupt entity."

"Today, in the face of all our sincere efforts to move forward on the political path, we received another proof of the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority," Sharon said. "Those who call for millions of tears are guilty, those who constantly incite are guilty. Those who fan terrorism are guilty. Those who launch terrorism are guilty."

Bush conveyed condolences to the Israeli leader and expressed "his disgust at this wanton taking of innocent life," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Meanwhile, another suicide bomber blew himself up in northern Israel Wednesday on the road between Haifa and Nazareth, an Israeli police spokesman said.

The blast occurred at Megido junction. Police reported no other injuries or deaths.

'It looked like a terrible dream'

The Tel Aviv bomber reportedly walked a few steps into the Sheffield snooker club about 11:10 p.m. (4:10 p.m. ET). Inside, witnesses "noticed a stranger," a police spokesman told Reuters. "He had an odd expression. He walked three to four steps inside and detonated his explosives. There was no time to get away."

One witness, who was leaving the building as the bomb went off, told CNN it was "the most deafening explosion you could imagine." Others said that they heard a loud explosion and saw a cloud of black smoke.

"The entire floor flew in the air. It looked like a terrible dream," witness Hanir Azulei told Reuters.

"The place was full of smoke, lots of ambulances, there was a lot of panic," Yigal Weiss told The Associated Press. He drove by the building shortly after the blast. (Full story)

Ambulance workers care for an injured Israeli woman ouside the billiard hall.  

"The Palestinian Authority will take every possible action if it proves that those behind this attack had anything to do, or were coming from, Palestinian areas," said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. "We don't condone the killing of civilians, either Palestinians or Israelis."

Arafat's statement said the attack causes "great negative damage" to the Palestinian cause and "gives Sharon the pretext to continue his aggression against Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps."

The statement said "severe measures" would be taken against those who carried out the attacks "and those who stand behind them."

Church standoff settlement delayed

The explosion occurred on the third floor of the three-story building. Pictures on Israeli TV showed the structure was heavily damaged, with the windows blown out and a ceiling collapsed.

The last Palestinian suicide bombing in Israel occurred April 12 and killed six people at an open air-market in Jerusalem.

Tuesday night's attack came as negotiators continued to resolve the standoff that has stretched for more than a month at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. (Full story)

Israeli and Palestinian officials had agreed to a plan that would allow most of the 123 Palestinians to go free.

Under the terms of the deal, 13 Palestinians inside the Bethlehem, West Bank church whom Israel accuses of being "senior terrorists" would be deported and 26 would be returned to Gaza to stand trial.

However, no country has agreed to accept the exiles.

-- CNN correspondents Jerrold Kessel, Wolf Blitzer and John King contributed to this report.




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