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U.S. official implicates Syrian-based group in Tel Aviv attack

'Firm evidence' cited on Palestinian Islamic Jihad's alleged role

From John King

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U.S. blames Syria-based group for Friday's attack in Tel Aviv.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has "firm evidence" that leaders of the Syrian-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad authorized and were "actively involved in planning" Friday's suicide bombing in Israel, a Bush administration official said Tuesday.

The conclusion is likely to add to the pressure the White House already is placing on Syria because of what it considers that country's interference in Lebanon and Iraq.

A U.S. official in Washington said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was addressing the new information in London, where she was attending a conference on ways to help the Palestinian Authority. (Full story)

At that conference, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas condemned Friday's bombing outside a Tel Aviv beachfront nightclub, which killed five people and injured at least 65 just three weeks into a fragile cease-fire.

"We condemn this action and repeat that the extremist forces are still intent to destroy any efforts toward peace," Abbas said.

Later, he called the bombers "saboteurs of peace" and promised to bring them to justice.

In Washington, the Bush administration official, reading from an internal administration communication, said the United States obtained "firm evidence that the bombing on the 25th of February was not only authorized by Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus but that PIJ leaders also were actively involved in planning."

The official declined to describe the evidence, saying only that it was based on "U.S. intelligence."

Nor would the official say whether the administration had or was planning to share the information with the government of Syria; the White House has repeatedly accused Syria of allowing terrorist organizations to operate within its borders.

The new conclusion comes as the Bush White House already is demanding that Syria immediately pull its troops and intelligence services from Lebanon and allow free and fair elections -- and complaining that Syria has allowed supporters of the Iraqi insurgency to operate and run supply lines within Syria.

In Lebanon Tuesday, the pro-Syrian president was searching for a new prime minister to replace Omar Karami, who resigned following two weeks of protests over the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The United States recalled its ambassador to Syria after that attack.

At the London conference, Rice offered support to Lebanon for free elections. (Full story)

Sharon demands action

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said there will be "no diplomatic progress" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process unless the Palestinian Authority takes "vigorous action" against local terrorists. (Full story)

He said then that Friday's attack was believed to have been ordered by terrorists based in Syria, but that the Palestinian Authority was still obligated to take action.

"The immediate test for the Palestinian Authority will be in vigorous action against Islamic Jihad members," he said.

The Palestinians, however, urged Israel not to let those who aim to undermine Middle East peace achieve that objective.

Islamic Jihad has a presence in Syria and is considered to be under that country's patronage. Syria denied any link to the suicide bombing.

Designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, Islamic Jihad is opposed to Israel's existence and has long waged an armed struggle against the Jewish state.

After the bombing, Sharon spoke by phone with Rice and told her that "without active steps by the Palestinians, there will be no transition towards implementing the first stage of the road map," according to a statement from his office.

The road map -- sponsored by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- calls for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence, followed by a "final and comprehensive" settlement of the conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

An unnamed but reliable Islamic Jihad source told CNN over the weekend that the group's leadership in Damascus and Beirut had taken responsibility for the attack.

However, Islamic Jihad members in the Palestinian territories denied any involvement in the bombing, which authorities said was detonated by a 22-year-old university student.

Palestinian and Israeli authorities arrested several people in connection with the blast.

CNN's Guy Raz and Yoav Appel contributed to this report.

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