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Suicide Bomber Strikes Central Jerusalem

Aired March 21, 2002 - 10:16   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN and our breaking news coverage. Right now, we have been reporting for the last hour or so an explosion by a suicide bomber in central Jerusalem, downtown Jerusalem, on King George Street near the Ben Yehuda Market. You are seeing some of the latest video right now of several of the victims. Two people are dead. At least two people are dead. More than 20 people are wounded. Some reports on the ground indicate as many as 40 people may be wounded. We have, by our count here at CNN, at least eight people seriously wounded.

The suicide bomber struck late in the afternoon at a very crowded marketplace area. This is an area where several Israeli Jews live and work, and according to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, who is at the scene right now, there is pandemonium, there is blood everywhere. You are looking at Israeli TV right now and the pictures that they managed to capture in the late afternoon.

CNN's John King, the chief White House correspondent we have here, has been reporting that the Bush administration is closely monitoring the situation. John had traveled with Vice President Dick Cheney during his 12-nation tour through Central Asia as well as through Israel. The vice president had said this morning that he was prepared to leave to go back to the Middle East as early as sometime this weekend, perhaps to meet face to face with Yasser Arafat before the Arab League summit next week in Beirut. But the contingent for that meeting is there had to be dramatic decrease in violence. Yet just in the last 48 hours, there was an attack on a civilian bus in northern Israel where four Israeli soldiers had been killed, several other people wounded. Again, a suicide bomber boarding that bus.

No one has claimed responsibility yet for this attack here in central Jerusalem, on King George Street, but in the past, Islamic Jihad, a militant organization, has claimed credit for those attacks.

We are going to go to CNN's John King once again at the White House -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, this violence, obviously, complicates the very delicate decision the administration faces, whether to send Vice President Cheney back to the region for what would be a groundbreaking meeting with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Again, a senior administration official a short time ago telling us this isn't helpful, obviously, this latest bombing in Jerusalem, but also saying that it is too early to make the call as to whether this would put off the vice president's trip indefinitely.

That call will be made by the president's envoy on the ground, special envoy Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general back in the region now, trying to arrange a truce. The question for Gen. Zinni to answer is as this violence unfolds -- yesterday, now again today -- is Yasser Arafat meeting the White House conditions for the meeting? Is he doing all he can to stop the violence?

Officials have warned that groups opposed to peace might react to the progress made during the vice president's trip by trying to incite violence and once again knock the process off track. Mr. Cheney gave the president an update on his 12-nation 10-day journey this morning here in the Oval Office. And having Mr. Cheney put the prospect of a meeting with Mr. Arafat on the table is a dramatic shift in administration policy. The White House line had been no Arafat meeting with Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney until Mr. Arafat made a 100 percent effort to bring about calm. The calm was supposed to come first before the meeting. The White House deciding to change strategy in an effort to bring an end to bloodshed, but the president making clear this morning as the administration makes that decision over the next 24 to 48 hours as to whether Mr. Cheney will go, he will be watching Mr. Arafat and asking this question, is he doing everything possible to stop the violence?


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it was the right thing to do, obviously. We set some strong conditions, and we expect Mr. Arafat to meet those conditions. I frankly have been disappointed in his performance.

I'm hopeful, however, that he listens to what the vice president told him, and said that in order for us to have influence in terms of achieving any kind of a peaceful resolution, he must, he, Mr. Arafat, must do everything in his power to stop the violence.


KING: A little bit of insight on the calculation to put a prospect of a Cheney-Arafat meeting on the table. White House officials believe in Israel, Prime Minister Sharon would face great criticism from the right, the conservatives, if he allowed Yasser Arafat out of the country to attend next week's Arab summit in Beirut. By having Mr. Cheney meet with him first, Mr. Sharon can they say it was the United States who asked for Mr. Arafat to leave.

So this meeting part of an effort to give Mr. Sharon cover back home, but also part of an effort for the vice president, we are told, to look Mr. Arafat directly in the eye and tell him at that Arab League Summit, you must voice your commitment to peace, you must not say anything that incites further violence.

The calculation also being that if Arafat...

LIN: John, let me interrupt you very quickly. I apologize, but I want to explain to our viewers the video they just saw of a man I'm told -- there he is. They're leading a suspect away from the scene right now. They are running him away from the scene in fact. They had him crouched and handcuffed. A crowd of people, they don't look like security forces. They're not dressed in any formal uniforms there.

There is a victim of the attack.

We are going to look into that, John, in just a moment.

In fact, right now, John, I will have you stand by at the White House while you gather more information from the administration.

Let's go CNN's Mike Hanna, not far from the scene, about a mile away.

Mike, do you know anything about who might be a suspect in this or anything about the video we just saw?

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, about that particular video, unclear exactly what was going on there. What we do know at this point is that the suicide bomber, police say, was among those critically injured, probably dead.

We have also had within the last few minutes a claim of responsibility. The claim of responsibility for this attack in Jerusalem coming from Palestinian sources saying that the Al Aqsa brigade claiming possibility. Now this is a significant point. The Al Aqsa brigade is the armed offshoot of the Fatah movement, which is, in turn, the political axis of Yasser Arafat himself. A clear degree of causal connection between Fatah, obviously, and Arafat, its political leader, and of course between the Al Aqsa brigade, which is the militant group of the Fatah movement.

We also have confirmation from police that two people are known to be dead in the suicide bombing, that well over 40 people have been wounded, some of them in a very serious condition.

Now to get back to that video that you are talking about, in terms of somebody being apparently apprehended or arrested at the scene, I must point out that those people in civilian clothes you refer to, quite possibly Israeli undercover agents. Now there have been a number of terror attacks in Jerusalem in recent weeks and indeed months. There is immensely high security. The security happening on all sorts of levels in terms of visible policing in the streets, but obviously a large amount of plain clothes undercover agents operating in Jerusalem and other Israeli towns and cities as these attacks against Israeli civilians continue.

More about the claim of responsibility though, the claim of responsibility saying that it was Al Aqsa brigades that carried it out, identified the suicide bomber, who police had indicated died in the blast. They've identified him, they've given his name, and they say he comes from a West Bank village, very near the West Bank city of Nablus. So these claims of responsibility that are made are sometimes authenticated by the fact that the suicide bomber himself is identified, which has happened in this case. And this is very different from a suicide attack that we had earlier in the week, for example, where the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. Now that is a radical group, together with another militant group, Hamas, which is opposed to the whole peace process, opposed to any form of peace negotiation, and in the past, has been vehemently opposed to Yasser Arafat because is he prepared to talk peace with Israel. Groups such as Jihad and Hamas will not have anything do with peace negotiations. But the Al Aqsa brigade, as offshoot of Fatah is supposedly involved in the peace process, as is its leader, its political leader, Yasser Arafat.

So for the Israelis and the Israeli government, there is a great causal connection between controlling the activities of Fatah and the Al Aqsa than there would be for controlling the activities of other militant groups. The reason I'm making all of this clear is that there are these cease-fire negotiations going on at present. Central to these negotiations is whether or not Yasser Arafat has control over those wanting to carry out acts of terror against Israel. And if he does have that control, whether is he able to exercise it.

So, another attack, police confirming two Israelis dead. The suicide bomber apparently dead, according police. As many as 50 people injured. A number of them in a very serious condition.

Back to you.

LIN: Mike, can do you the math for us then, because what you said here is pretty significant? If in fact it is this Al Aqsa brigade, that they are in fact the armed offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, then who does this say about Yasser Arafat's complicity in what happened today, or how much control he might have over his own people?

HANNA: Well, complicity is perhaps a word that one cannot use at this particular point. But the significance of it all is to what degree Yasser Arafat exercises control over militant groupings within Palestinian society. Now Palestinian Authority leaders have been saying that they cannot control the acts of each and every individual or individual groups. The Palestinian Authority has said that it cannot be held accountable for the actions of radical groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad.

But the Al Aqsa, and let's make this very clear, the Al Aqsa brigade is an armed wing of the political organization which is completely under the authority of Yasser Arafat. It is Yasser Arafat's political movement. Therefore, if one does the math on this, if Arafat cannot control Al Aqsa brigade, then Israelis will ask the question, well, then who can he control? If he can control groups like Al Aqsa brigades, then the Israeli question is, why is he not exerting the control? So in the end, it is a fairly simple equation to work out.

LIN: But why, Mike, would an organization associated with Yasser Arafat, why would they strike in this manner, in this bloody manner, in downtown Jerusalem, just as Yasser Arafat was perhaps on the brink with a face-to-face meeting with the vice president. while Palestinian and Israeli security forces are on the ground meeting face to face, talking about how they can decrease the violence so that the peace process can move on? Why would his own organization undermine that effort?

HANNA: Well, let's start with this point, one must make the assumption, given the factors you clearly outline there, one must make this assumption that any group that carries out a terror attack at this point of time in the middle of negotiations aimed at ending such attacks has one purpose, and that is to disrupt that negotiation process, to prevent any cease-fire from occurring.

Now, that brings us to the point of why would a group that normally supports Yasser Arafat do that? Once again, this is all speculation, but there are two things here. Either Arafat does not control that group, so you are looking at a scenario where even those who are political followers of Yasser Arafat are not under his control or are not prepared to listen to what he says. Now that is a very dangerous situation, because how then, will the Israelis ask, can he make any agreements that will be adhered to?

So there is a lot going on here. And the point simply remains that the question that Israel is going to be asked, the question that the U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni is going to ask, is to the Palestinian leader, why did this attack happen? If it was indeed Al Aqsa brigade, why can you not control a body aligned to you politically? Thirdly, if you could expert this control, then why are you not doing so?

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, how can you guarantee a cease-fire when these acts of terror continue.

LIN: Mike Hanna, thank you very much. Thanks for breaking that latest addition to this breaking news that we've been covering this morning. We will be going back to Mike Hanna frequently throughout the day. Please stay tuned.

A very quick recap here, two people dead in central Jerusalem. At least as Mike Hanna has now updated us from Jerusalem, at least 40 people wounded, some of them extremely seriously, and Mike has just told us that the claim of responsibility, according to CNN's Palestinian sources, a group called Al Aqsa brigade. It's an armed offshoot of the Fatah movement, which is associated under the control of Yasser Arafat. Many questions here as to why this happened today.

We will be back with much more breaking news. Stay right there.




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