Suicide bombings kill 23 in Tel Aviv
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Two nearly simultaneous suicide bombings rocked central Tel Aviv early Sunday evening, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 100 others, Israeli police said.
The explosions happened around 6:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. ET) -- the peak of rush hour -- near a closed bus station.
The neighborhood is home to a large number of immigrant workers and was the scene of another suicide attack in July that left five people dead.
Just hours later, Israeli forces fired rockets at targets in Gaza.
Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said the Tel Aviv explosions went off about 150 meters (165 yards) apart and were timed "very close." Police said 103 wounded people were evacuated from the scene. (Accounts from the scene)
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, initially claimed responsibility for the attack and said the bombers were two Palestinians from Nablus. But in a fax sent later to CNN on the group's letterhead, the group denied all responsibility.
"The brigade remains fully committed to the legitimate Palestinian leadership headed by Yasser Arafat and stick by it," the statement said. The group is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
The Islamic Jihad, likewise on the State Department's list of terrorist groups, also claimed responsibility in a phone call to CNN's Beirut bureau, but its militant wing later denied the claim.
Sharon summons ministers
After the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called an emergency meeting of his top Cabinet ministers -- Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom.
Sharon held the Palestinian Authority responsible for the terror attacks. "All attempts to lead to a cease-fire, even today, are failing due to the Palestinian leadership that continues to support, fund and initiate terror," he told a group of international students in Jerusalem.
Even as the Cabinet ministers were meeting, Israeli forces fired nine missiles at targets in Gaza early Monday, witnesses said. One of the targets was a workshop.
At least four people in a house were injured when one of the missiles apparently went astray, witnesses said.
On the West Bank, Nablus and Bethlehem were under complete curfew early Monday, as was the part of Hebron near the settlement of Kiryat Arba.
Deadliest attack in 10 months
The attack was the deadliest since March 2002, when the bombing of a hotel dining room during a Passover seder killed 29 Israelis and wounded 140.
Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin was swift to hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for the bombings, saying it "instigated and supported" attacks on Israeli civilians.
But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat condemned the attacks and called Gissin's assertions a "broken record, assigning blame and finger-pointing at us."
He called on the United States to step in to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.
"We need the help of a third party," Erakat said. "We need the help of an American administration because the trust level between us and Mr. Sharon is below zero."
Sharon said talks would not resume until attacks on Israelis ended.
"Our goal is to stop the brutal terror, to achieve calm and quiet," Sharon said. "Only when the brutal terror is stopped -- only then we will be able to talk peace."
Gissin suggested the attacks may have been intended to influence Israel's January 28 election in which Sharon faces a challenge from Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, a dovish former general.
The last suicide bombing in Israel was November 21, when a Palestinian bomber killed 11 people and wounded 50 on a bus in Jerusalem.
But Gissin said that the "relative calm" has been deceptive because Israeli authorities stopped several planned attacks before they could be carried out.
President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the bombings in separate statements Sunday evening.
"It is a despicable act of murder, and I express my condolences to the government and people of Israel and especially to the families of the victims," Bush said.
"The United States remains determined to continue our efforts toward peace in the Middle East, a goal that the terrorists seek to destroy. All who genuinely seek peace in the region must join in the effort to stop terror."
Said Powell: "These attacks on innocent Israelis only serve to set back further the hopes of the Palestinian people and the president's June 24 vision of two states -- Israel and Palestine -- living side by side in peace and security."
Powell said Washington took note of the condemnation by Palestinian officials and said it is essential for them to take every step to bring about an end to all violence.