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Suicide Bombing Injures 29 at Tel-Aviv Cafe

Aired March 30, 2002 - 17:02   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with the latest conflict in the Middle East. CNN's Ben Wedeman is in Tel-Aviv at the scene where this suicide bombing took place.

Ben, I know it's been several hours since the attack, but what is the scene like there and what are people telling you?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, what's interesting actually is this -- you may be able to see, normal traffic is passing through this area. The emergency services have pulled out. The police are gone.

Basically, we saw a cleaning crew at the scene of the cafe, the My Coffee Shop, as it's called. It was on a corner. I got a chance to get a good close look at the destruction there. It is really incredible that not more people were injured or even killed in this blast. At this point, the injuries are 29 people wounded, six severely wounded, one critically wounded, and that apparently is a woman.

Now, the suicide bomber was one Mohammad Salahad (ph), who comes from the Nablus area of the northern part of the West Bank. According to Palestinian sources, he was a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. That is a group affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Now, just to give you a sense of the tension, the frayed nerves in this area, about two hours ago there was a huge crowd here and ambulances and police. And all of a sudden, everybody started to jump in their cars, run away from the area, because word had spread -- there was a rumor that there was another blast here in Tel Aviv.

In just a matter of moments, the area cleared out. It turned out it was just a rumor, but that really gives you an idea of how edgy people are in this city at the moment.

Now also earlier, we saw a crowd of angry Israelis burning a Palestinian flag. Obviously, there is a lot of anger right now at the Palestinians -- at the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. There is a feeling that no matter what the Israelis do, whether according to some of the people I speak with -- I spoke with here, they said whether we try to make peace, whether we try to make war, the suicide bombings continue -- Carol. LIN: Ben, can you give us a sense -- this is the third suicide bombing in as many days, are there any indications that they're upping security out on the streets? Because typically these suicide bombers are picking places obviously where a lot of people gather. They're very public areas. How is anybody to know where the next point of danger might be?

WEDEMAN: Well, there is no way anybody can know and that's the problem. Of course, security has been beefed up significantly over the last few months. Many cafes, many restaurants now employ private security guards who check everybody who goes in. They check their -- if they have bags, sometimes there are metal detectors. Sometimes those are successful. Sometimes they're not.

This spot, the cafe that was hit this evening, it's on a corner. It's very exposed. It didn't look like the sort of place that would have the kind of money to employ private security. Yesterday I was in the southern part of Jerusalem at a supermarket where there was another suicide bomber. In that case, a vigilant security guard was able to spot a woman, a female suicide bomber, stop her from going in. But nonetheless, she exploded herself right outside. Two people were killed.

So security is intense. I've never seen it the way it is at the moment, but there are many, many people out there. There are many potential bombers. And in fact, just earlier today Israeli police stopped a man. Apparently, he had explosives on him as well, and one Israeli policeman was killed when they tried to subdue him. And he, in fact, was not able to set off his explosives. So a very difficult security situation indeed -- Carol.

LIN: Yeah, the front line is shifting every day in that area. Thank you very much, Ben Wedeman, reporting live from Tel-Aviv, where another suicide bombing has taken place.

We're going to shift across town. We're going to go to Jerusalem now. CNN's Bill Hemmer, with a view of the old city there and perhaps more information on how Israel is likely to respond -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, good evening. Well, into the night here in Jerusalem, the streets have fallen somewhat quiet. Earlier, some cars were moving through the streets here, but a lot of those are simply off the streets. We're into Easter Sunday right now, Carol. And about 10 miles from our location, the town of Ramallah, West Bank town of Ramallah. Those Israeli tanks and troops still surround the Yasser Arafat compound with several people still inside there.

Getting some conflicting reports, though, as to whether or not there has been an ultimatum due, a potentially stormed that compound. The Palestinians tell us indeed there is a plan, that was given to them by the Israelis who said if you do not surrender they will storm the building. But apparently that's not the case, according to the Israelis anyway. They flat out deny it.

Michael Holmes, a CNN correspondent, is in the area. We talked to him about 10 minutes ago. He says it's very quiet tonight. He notices very little military movement in and around that area. Michael would know. He's been in the -- he's been in Ramallah for the past several days, reporting on the group's movements there.

Now, elsewhere, Anthony Zinni, the U.S. envoy, the retired Marine general, Carol. He's still in Jerusalem. And President Bush, speaking earlier today from Texas, says he will not leave. He will stay here and try again forge together this peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Bear in mind, Zinni has been here now on his third trip. Two other times unsuccessful. The Americans at this point in the White House simply not giving up on the hopes that Zinni might be able to bridge some sort of gap here.

You remember, about mid-week of this past week, the White House was saying that there is progress being made within these talks. They weren't very specific about that progress, but one has to question right now on the ground with this suicide bombing in Tel-Aviv, the one yesterday in the supermarket in Jerusalem, the one on Wednesday night in Netanya during the beginning of Passover, how much control right now there is at that negotiating table to try and forge not only a cease-fire but some sort of security in this region.

You talk with a number of Israelis today, and I've not been on the ground very long to be frank with you, Carol. Just about eight or nine hours right now. But just about every Israeli I talk to says right now they're simply afraid. They say that fear extends to both sides of the Middle East crisis. Not only Israelis but Palestinians as well. Others express the fact that they are simply tired. Tired and worn out from the empty fodder now that's lasted 18 months, and the casualties, frankly, staggering; 1,500 between both sides here, about 75 percent of them on the Palestinian side, but still those numbers continue to climb.

As for Yasser Arafat, though, and his fate inside that compound -- speaking with two Israeli officials from the Foreign Ministry Department, they indicate that the tanks will stay there and isolate Yasser Arafat for as long as it takes to get him to call for a cease- fire. Is that days? Is that weeks? Is that months? That's pretty much anybody's guess right now.

But it is now the holiest week -- one of the holiest weeks I should say, with Passover continuing until Thursday. Easter Sunday now upon us in the Holy Land, but at this point the Holy Land is anything but that. The violence does continue, and so too does the very precarious state of this entire region. It is anybody's guess, as I said, which direction we go next tomorrow when the sun comes up -- Carol.

LIN: But Bill, you're indicating that talks are continuing between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, according to Anthony Zinni, the U.S. envoy.

HEMMER: Yeah. Not according to Zinni necessarily, but the spokespeople within the Israeli government do indicate that there is still communication and things are still being talked about. But to what degree and to what level is not quite clear. And also the other question is whether or not Anthony Zinni is making progress. We are told he is the only game in town, to borrow the phrase from one Israeli government official here, but whether or not he is making success or winning at that game really is an open question right now.

LIN: All right. All eyes on the United States and what influence it can have in that region right now. Thank you very much. Bill Hemmer, reporting live from Jerusalem.

Bill was talking about CNN correspondent Michael Holmes. He has spent the day and well into the night in Ramallah, near Yasser Arafat's compound, which has been surrounded. Michael joins us live now. Michael, what is the situation in Ramallah right now, and when was the last time anyone has heard from Yasser Arafat?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's been a while since anybody's heard from him. It's not really surprising. In fact, he was interviewed this afternoon. That would be probably about -- I'm losing track of time here, probably about 12 hours ago. He was interviewed by a television news agency, which managed to basically smuggle in and out a camera and was able to do an interview.

We were there not too long ago. Got back about hour and a half ago, and I can tell you it was very quiet there. I was there in the morning. There was some shooting, and in fact a Palestinian security officer was killed today. But this evening, there was movement of APC's, armored personnel carriers, and tanks in the compound and around the compound. That in itself is not unusual. The widespread stories and claims about imminent attack, and we even heard a report that perhaps there had been a helicopter rocket attack -- absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever.

The journey there, we went in about four armored vehicles in a convoy of the media because it's safer to travel that way at night rather than on your own. We found that in the last couple of days we've been able to get to the compound very easily, even when there's been fire fights going on. But on this occasion, we were turned back twice on our normal route, and we had to take a back route and at one point we had a tank turn its turret toward us. That in itself not unusual, but he wasn't about to let us go past.

So we had to go around and we eventually got to an area of the compound where we could view the wall at least and some of the buildings, and it was remarkably quiet.

I want to now bring in, if I can, Maher Shalabi. He is the Ramallah correspondent for Dubai Television, and he had some experiences today. Maher, can you tell us what happened while you were in your office?

MAHER SHALABI, DUBAI TV: Well, while in our office, actually for the past few days, the Israeli army enter the city of Ramallah. Our area starting 10:00 last night, Jerusalem time, we saw seven tanks coming towards our building. We hear some firing in the beginning and then what happened, our building start shaking because it seems -- I don't know what kind of gun, grenade or I don't know what, they attacked the building itself. But it took them to make it very short, at least four hours to get our office. And we notify the IDF (ph) spokesman that there is a journalist here covering the story. They care. They call, say don't worry. We'll let the army know. They army enters our office by force. I start screaming that we are journalists. They asked me to get naked and comes toward them. I refused to get naked. I said, I'm not going to get naked. They want every journalist to get naked and come to them. We said we'll show you that we are not getting anything. We are journalists. We agree the, one by one.

Then they split us into different rooms and they put me and used me as a human shield to go from room to room. I said that this is against Israeli law as they, and this is against all laws. I am American citizen. I have GPO (ph) card. He said I don't care about anything. You go to every room. They put a gun to my head, two soldiers. I have to go into every room. I tell them it's clean, nothing is here. They enter the room. Well, time passing, they stay in our office ...

HOLMES: Mr. Shalabi, Mr. Shalabi, I understand that part of the story. We're running short of time. I wonder if you could tell us about the bodies that you later found on the third floor?

SHALABI: Well, one of the soldiers told me that there is five bodies downstairs. After the army left, I asked the officer if we can shoot. He said nothing is here. We moved the bodies. He allowed us to shoot some prisoners, but not inside the building. He take me outside. We shoot some of the after they left activity. We went, and suddenly in the third floor I saw bodies laying down in right hand floor of them and next to the wall. Laying down on the left hand. They have big clothes on their heads. One completely had been destroyed. One had under his ears, completely a huge hole. All of them got -- this is my impression, I'm not an expert but this is how I see it. That they got shot probably after they turned from very close distance because ...

HOLMES: Is that implying that they were dressed, or four of the five, were dressed in military uniforms though and the Israeli army says they were combatants.

SHALABI: They dressed with army uniforms and as we know they were all of them over 50 and 55 years old. They are old people as you know, Michael, all the Palestinian and the institution being completely destroyed so there is a lot -- the Palestinian police are homeless in the town of Ramallah and other towns. They were in the streets trying to hide from Israeli tanks and also from weather. So, they were in the building, yes, but I saw many of those army and soldiers getting orders before the Israeli tanks -- through their walkie talkies, not to fire at Israeli tanks because it's worthless and many of them give themselves up and surrender to the Israeli army without exchange of fire or anything.

HOLMES: OK, Mr. Shalabi, Dubai Television here in Ramallah, thanks very much.

Now before I go back to you, I've got to tell you that I spent 20 minutes in the room that he is describing. I didn't see Mr. Shalabi at that time. The building appeared to be empty. Those four men were in a very small area, five and a half feet by maybe eight feet, and two of them were shot in the head. I was with a military expert and we spent some time looking at this scene and without wanting to -- I'm not a forensic scientist, but without wanting to read too much into it, it was a scene that does bear more investigation, we thought.

One of the men was certainly shot in the back of the head while on the ground. That was clear from the evidence at the scene. There were dozens, scores of Israeli shell casings. M16 shell casings. Often the weapon's that are used by Palestinian security forces are AK47's. I can't say what kind of weapons these men may or may not have had. We found maybe six AK47 shells. The fifth man was in civilian clothing, was lying next to the door. The other four in this small ante area, there was door behind them where one thought they could easily escaped were there a firefight. So there were certainly some suspicion there.

When we asked the IDF (ph) about it, they said that the men had thrown a grenade at troops outside and those troops came in and there was firefight at close quarters. We didn't -- have to say we didn't see evidence of any grenades in or outside of that building. Certainly a very interesting situation there, and one that perhaps bears more investigation. Back to you.

LIN: All right Michael Holmes, reporting live in Ramallah. A situation that may bear more investigation, but obviously in a situation like this who in the world would be the investigating body?

Coming up, we are going to get reaction from our correspondent who is covering the president of the United States, who is in Crawford, Texas. He broke away from what he thought was going to be a day off, compelled to gather reporters in a trailer outside of his ranch, to respond to the latest violence in the Mid-East. We'll be right back.




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