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Suicide Bombing in Jerusalem Shopping Area Kills at Least Two

Aired March 21, 2002 - 09:51   ET


JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: ... recently concluded trip to the Middle East. These are the new pictures we were talking about. This video just coming in via satellite. A crowded shopping district in Jerusalem, another suicide bombing, and presumably, yet another setback to any hopes of getting a cease-fire in place.

Dick Cheney, the vice president, refusing to meet with Arafat during his recently concluded trip there, saying that he will be glad to sit down and talk to Mr. Arafat when we have a cessation of the violence, and apparently there's a fairly short window if there's to be a meeting. The vice president saying I think it was yesterday, he was willing to go back over next week to talk to Yasser Arafat, but there had to be cessation of the violence before that was going to happen.

Mike Hanna is back on the line with us now live from Jerusalem.

Mike, what can you give in the way of an update on this?

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jack, more details emerging at the present from an explosion in the middle of Jerusalem which police have confirmed was a suicide bombing. According to hospital sources, more than 20 people have been wounded in the attack. Now, at least eight of these are said to be in serious condition, as seven have moderate to light injuries, and the rest receiving superficial injuries at the this stage.

No news of fatalities at this particular point, whether how many or whether in fact people have been killed in this blast, which happened right in the middle of Jerusalem, a crowded shopping and pedestrian area, the street of King George's Street, very close to Jaffa Road, a main arterial road through Jerusalem proper. The initial pictures from the scene showing crowds there, massive fleets of ambulances that have powered into the area.

This is a scene all too familiar in Jerusalem. There have been a number of terror attacks that have taken place in recent weeks and months in the city. Large numbers of people have been killed, have been injured. And here again, yet another terror attack, a suicide bombing. And no reports yet as to the loss of life. But more than 20 people reported to be injured at this stage -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: All right, CNN's Mike Hanna reporting. Mike, how far are you from the site where these pictures are coming from, the site of the explosion? We had Christiane Amanpour on the phone from the actual site of the blast here a moment ago? Are you close to that neighborhood or not?

HANNA: Yes, indeed, Jack. Jerusalem in the way a very small city. Our bureau here not much more than a mile, probably less, away from the site of this bombing, and also from the site of a number of bombing that have taken place in recent months. This particular area around King George's Street and Jaffa Road has been a particular target of those attempting to carry out terror attacks and succeeding in carrying out terror attacks. So this, as I said, a very familiar scene to those who will live in Jerusalem. These attacks have been ongoing.

This area less crowded than it would have been a few months ago, simply because of the ongoing threat of attacks. They have become, sad to say, a very normal occurrence. There have been more than 20 terror attacks in Jerusalem alone since the beginning of the year.

So this town, a city that has grown to know all too well the sound of ambulance sirens as they scream, the sounds of suddenly all the radios going off and announcing the news there has been attack, the cell phone system collapsing on the weight of people making calls to tell loved ones, their families, their friends that they are all right. So it is a familiar scene, it is a familiar chain of events, but nonetheless, sad at all, each time, each week another attack happening -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Mike, Yasser Arafat has been held responsible for these bombing attacks as they have begun to happen here in recent months. He has claimed that he is doing all he can to stop them at various times. Is it a fair question to ask whether or not all of this kind of activity is all strictly under Arafat's control?

HANNA: That is a position that the Israeli government maintains, that each time there is one of these attacks, Israel says that the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat must be held accountable, because they say the Palestinian Authority has not cracked down on known militants. It did at the beginning of this intifada, released a number of known militants from prison. The Palestinian Authority, though, replies to that by saying it cannot be held accountability for the acts of each and every individual or groups of individuals within the Palestinian territories, that they cannot be held totally accountable for security within Israel proper.

Now the reality behind all of this there are groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, very militant radical groups, that are opposed to the peace process. They are opposed to the negotiations for a cease-fire under way at present. They are opposed and have in the past been opposed to Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority, because he's prepared to talk to Israel about a peace at some stage.

So there's arguments of to and fro. But from the Israel government's point of view, is the fact that Yasser Arafat is head of the Palestinian Authority, the fact that he has the security forces under his command, then he must be held accountable, and that these terror attacks would not be taking place at the scale that they are taking place if he did make good on his commitment, if he did make good on his public pronouncement that he is opposed to acts of terror -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: Mike, how much optimism was there over in that part of the world in the wake of Vice President Cheney's recently concluded trip and the expressions on the part of the vice president, Mr. Sharon and various other people involved in the process, that perhaps there was some hope of getting a cease-fire, a pause in the violence, so that there could be attempt at negotiations? Was there realistic hope that that was going to happen? And how much damage has been done to that hope in the last couple of days, do you suppose?

HANNA: Well, there was a degree of hope. I mean, one must remember that all in this region somewhat cynical and tired by the continual ebb and flow of this ongoing conflict. They have seen would-be peace negotiators come and leave empty-handed. Yet at the same time all of that being said. There was a sense at this time there had been progress in terms of cease-fire negotiations, and this progress may still be there. We're not sure to what extent this attack will throw the negotiations off the rails, but there have been hope before, perhaps that hope may remain, but each of the attacks a sad, sad dent and a massive blow to those hoping that a cease-fire and an eventual lasting peace can be reached, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Mike, thanks very much for all your help this morning on breaking new out of Jerusalem.

CNN's Mike Hanna reporting from Jerusalem.

Just to recap quickly, officials are confirming at least two people dead in a suicide bombing that happened this morning along King George Street. That is a very heavily-traveled shopping district in Jerusalem. The explosion went off about 4:25 in the afternoon Israeli time. Twenty people, we understand, at least have been hurt.

This is the second suicide bombing in as many days. There was an Islamic militant that detonated an explosion no a crowned commuter bus in Israel yesterday. That bombing killed him and seven other passengers, and all of this coming as Vice President Dick Cheney comes back from what was hoped to have been a productive trip aimed at ending this kind of thing.

But obviously, with two of these incidents in the last 36 or 48 hours, how much real progress that trip made is very much open to question.

We will continue, of course, to cover this story for you. It is still a little bit on the sketchy side. No one has claimed responsibility as of yet. The reason Vice President Cheney refused to meet with Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, on his trip to the Middle East, was that he wanted an end to violence before any discussions with Mr. Arafat, and there was apparently a window of opportunity where the meeting discussions could have taken place next week. The vice president saying he was willing to go back over there to meet with Yasser Arafat. Whether there's chance of that happening or not now is very much an open question.

CNN will stay right on the story. Keep your dials set where it is.

Carol Lin once again is set in Atlanta to take you through the next hour. That concluded AMERICAN MORNING. For my colleagues in New York, I'm Jack Cafferty. Thanks for watching. And now let's go to, Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, thank you very much, Jack. Yes, our international desk behind me is working hard on this story, as well as our people on the ground.

In fact, right now, CNN's Christiane Amanpour is at the scene where this explosion, this suicide bombing, took place.

Christiane, can you tell you us, can you describe the scene around you and what's happening right now?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far, there are, according to reports, two people confirmed dead. I can tell you from my own eyewitness vantage point that I am looking right now at a stretcher on which is being laid out a body that is now being covered by a black tarpaulin. Medical examiners have been examining. It looks to me from here to be the body of a woman. So I believe we can confirm, from our own eyewitness point of view, at least one person dead.

Israeli press is reporting that at least 40 people have been injured. Earlier, the police said about 20 people have been taken to hospital. We saw with our own eyes as we came over here some of the, as you call, walking wounded being taken away, being helped along as they tried to walk away. Others, an elderly woman, for instance -- she sounded American to me -- was being taken away on a stretcher, rather on a wheelchair, but was not injured. These people were in the vicinity when this happened.

Looking over the crime scene here and watching the disposal people try to clear up, you can see the fragments of the body of what presumably was the suicide bomber. There are people here -- this is not only a commercial, but also a residential district, so people in this street, King George Street, are standing on their balconies and looking out at what is going on.

The suicide bomber detonated himself or herself outside about four shops here. We can see a bakery that has been damaged, a toy shop, a sheet and linen shop, if you like, and next door a candy store or a small grocery. In the streets, there are many, as you can imagine, security personnel; there are the police, there are the usual bomb disposal units, there are the bomb sniffer dogs, there are military, and there are the medical personnel who have come here to try to help and to evacuate those who are wounded and those who are dead. As you can see, it is happening right below us. One person, as I mentioned, we can see is being covered up and shortly will be taken away in an ambulance. There are, as you can imagine, a huge number of press people, who converge to witness and record these things when they happen. And as you have been reporting, this has come at a time when both the Israeli and the Palestinian security officials have been meeting. They met twice over the past week, and are due it meet again tonight, at 9:00 p.m. our time, which is in about four hours. It remains to be seen whether that (AUDIO PROBLEMS) attack ahead of any kind of peace proposals --- those are Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- or whether, in fact, more insidiously for Yasser Arafat and for the peace process, it will be someone or some group associated with his group.

Back to you.

LIN: Christiane, we are just having a disruptive signal from your telephone, but please stay with us. Give me your perspective, what your sources are telling you in terms of this peace process and how much violence it can tolerate.

AMANPOUR: Well, that's an open question. This is now a community on both sides that have tolerated almost unbearable levels of violence for the last 18 months. Yet periodically, there are talks between both sides. There are attempts to negotiate. As you know, the last two weeks has been one of the heaviest Israeli military offenses, in response to Palestinian suicide attacks that took place in the West Bank and in Gaza.

This has been much quieter, obviously, this week as vice president Cheney came to not only the region, but to Israel, and helped push both sides closer towards some kind of resolution in terms of getting both of the sides' security officials to talk and try to implement the principles of the Tenet agreement, which was drawn up last summer, and to try to get some kind of cease-fire in place, and at the same time to try to envision a political track.

It also comes ahead of what's considered a fairly important meeting of Arab leaders in Beirut next week. Not only are they meant to adopt a new Saudi initiative for a peace plan and for the Arab nations to recognize and normalize relations with Israel, but also Yasser Arafat was due to be released from more than three months of internal confinement under pressure from the United States. He was due to be released and allowed to go to Beirut to try to cooperate with any kind of peace agreement.

But of course, a condition for his leaving the territories here was a visible and verifiable reigning in of the violence. And certainly today there has been yet another horrendous suicide terrorist attack here in Jerusalem, and yesterday an even worse one in terms of fatalities, a suicide attack on a bus that claimed seven lives and wounded about 30 other people.

So the signs are not good. It remains to be seen what the politicians do next.

LIN: Christiane, right now, we are putting up some video from Israeli's Channel 2. We are looking at the very crowded scene, where people are running for their lives, and we see rescue workers responding as quickly as they can. Can you give us a flavor for what this area is? How crowded was it when the suicide bomber struck? And what are eyewitnesses telling you about what exactly happened?

AMANPOUR: Well, when we arrived here, it was about 15 minutes after the explosion. The explosion was heard. Journalists, as they often do, as they usually do jumped into their vehicles, raced to the scene of the crime, and tried to see what is happening. As we got here, the streets were also jammed with ambulances and fire engines with their sirens wailing. Of course, we have to give way to those people. We were kept back for awhile by the security authorities, not only to enable the security and the medical people to do their job, but also in case another bomb went off.

So we went around the back, and we have now arrived for the last half an hour on this street. We are on a balcony with a very clear view of the site of what happened. We can see and we have seen some of the injured, and as I said, we have seen at least one body being examined, wrapped up, placed on a stretcher, and about to be taken out of this facility.

We are being told that two people are being confirmed dead and that -- some of the sights in front of me are really very gruesome. It doesn't bear repeating. I'm sure you have heard this many times, but you can imagine the aftermath of a suicide bomber (AUDIO PROBLEMS) blowing him or herself up leaves considerable gore. And this is being cleared up at the moment this.

This is a residential and a commercial street. At this time of day, it is generally crowded. People are still at work. We can see right now people on their balconies who are looking at what's going on. This has become an unfortunately familiar situation for them.

LIN: Christiane, is it predominantly Jewish neighborhood? Are there Arab-Israelis who have businesses or might be shopping in the area as well? I'm just wondering how mixed it is there.

AMANPOUR: This is predominantly a Jewish neighborhood. This is the center, if you like, the heart, of west Jerusalem, the shopping area, the residential area. And this is, from what we have been told, certainly, and from what we know about this area, this is where you would find Israeli Jews.

LIN: Yesterday's bombing attack, a suicide bomber boarding a civilian bus in northern Israel yesterday, four Israeli soldiers died, several people were wounded, including Jewish Israelis as well as Arab Israelis. Islamic Jihad took credit for that attack on that bus. And Yasser Arafat has been saying all along that he is doing what he can to control the violence, to try and control these different militant groups. What do these attacks say about his ability actually to control the violence in these, perhaps, outside forces?

AMANPOUR: Well, I think that it is clear that Islamic Jihad and Hamas have historically been opposed to any peace agreement. These are the groups that have in the past launched waves of suicide attacks, precisely at a time when cease-fires or peace agreements were being hammered out. These are the people who do not believe in the peace that was negotiated in Oslo. But in the last 18 months of the latest intifada, other militant wings have sprung up here, as you know. Some of them claim to be allied with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigade, and others who have claimed responsibility for attacks in the past.

This group has not claimed responsibility for the attacks this week. And in a conversation with members of this militant organization allied to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, I talked to them on Monday, and they said that if Arafat ordered a cease-fire, they would abide by it.

So as I say, it remains for us to see who claims responsibility. Clearly, not that that makes any difference in the carnage here that is wrought here, but whether or not the politicians in Israel, whether or not the U.S. mediator, Anthony Zinni, decides that Arafat has or has not control over the people who claim this particular phase of violence.

LIN: Christiane, how is Yasser Arafat likely to respond to this latest attack?

AMANPOUR: Well, perhaps, in the manner that he did yesterday. The Palestinian Authority in his name, several officials, came out and again condemned, as they have in the past, attacks against Israeli civilians. Of course, this has often not been good enough for the Israeli government. They accuse and blame him for the culture of violence and for the incitement to violence and for not reigning in violence. They blame him, and they say that he is ultimately responsible because he is the official authority in the Palestinian territories. So that is the situation at the moment.

LIN: Christiane Amanpour, reporting live by telephone from the scene of where this suicide bomber attacked in the late afternoon there, in downtown Jerusalem, on King George Street, near the Ben Yehuda Mall. This is an area where not only Israeli Jews live and shop, but this is an area where, if you have ever visited Jerusalem, this is an area where many international tourists might find themselves as well. Christiane Amanpour will stay on the scene with complete live coverage throughout the day.

But in the meantime, right now, we want to turn to CNN's John King, our chief White House correspondent. John had been traveling with the vice president during his tour through Central Asia and the Middle East.

John, what are you hearing in terms of a reaction there from the White House, and what can be done about this.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, the White House is obviously very concerned about this latest tragic bombing in Jerusalem. No one here more interested than the vice president, who has to make a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours about whether to get on a plane and return to the region. We are told it would be to Egypt, to have that one-on-one meeting with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. I spoke just moments ago to a senior administration official who will be involved in that decision and who is watching these developments this morning, who said it is too soon to make any judgments. This obviously isn't helpful, but it is too early right now to decide whether this will in any way impact the potential meeting between the vice president and Yasser Arafat. This official also saying the administration appealing to the Israelis to show restraint here.

While traveling with the vice president in the region after he had brokered this agreement, Israeli pullout, from the Gaza and the West Bank, Israeli permission for Yasser Arafat to leave for that Arab summit Christiane was just talking about, the prospect of a Cheney- Arafat meeting. All of this conditional on Mr. Arafat doing everything he can to stop violence. Officials at the time warned that there are some extreme groups on both sides, in the Israeli camps and in Palestinian camps, that don't want peace. This officials telling at the time as we were in the region that it unfortunately predictable that there might be some efforts to derail the process.

So a very sensitive moment here. The administration will follow this over the next day or so and then make the very substantial decision as to whether Mr. Cheney will go back for that meeting in Egypt with Mr. Arafat. And again, the Vice president has plans in place to leave here as early as Sunday to do that. He wants meet with Arafat if he decides to go, just before that Arab summit (AUDIO PROBLEMS).





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