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Crisis in the Middle East

Aired April 12, 2002 - 13:26   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, welcome back to Jerusalem. Want to take you back to that White House briefing with Ari Fleischer a short time ago. You heard Kelly Wallace talking essentially about the White House leaving open ended the issue of whether or not Yasser Arafat will have that meeting tomorrow with Colin Powell.

Let's go back now, play the words of Ari Fleischer and listen to it from the White House.


FLEISCHER: As of this morning, the meeting was planned. As I said, the president has given flexibility to this mission. It was flexible all along, but the president is very troubled by what happened. And the president believes that if Yasser Arafat meant what he committed in the Oslo Accords to denounce terrorism that today would be a particularly apt day for Yasser Arafat to publicly express himself in denunciation of this terrorist attack and to show leadership.


HEMMER: Ari Fleischer went on to say in word and deed, his comment to Yasser Arafat. And again, we will wait and find out if indeed that meeting takes place. It was on the schedule for 11:00 a.m. local time tomorrow morning. That's about roughly 15 hours away from now. And we do not know any firm commitment as to whether or not that meeting will happen.

In the meantime though, you know the headline by now, a suicide bomber ripping through Central Jerusalem, right along Jaffa Road, which, as many know, is one of the main thoroughfares here in Jerusalem. That has been the target for numerous bombings in the past, including one at the Zabaro Pizzeria (ph) that took place well over a year ago.

What is interesting to note though, is up and down Jaffa Road, the cabdrivers will literally tell you where each bombing has taken place. And in each location, you can see fresh paint, new glass, a new front facade for the stores that have had their structures blown out. Today six people killed, 65 others injured. It's quite possible, as we have said many times, those numbers will change.

To Jason Bellini now, one of the first reporters on the scene who captured some exclusive videotape with his own camera. Jason joins us now live. He's also in Jerusalem with more on his perspective for what he found there at the scene earlier.

Jason, hello, good evening.


I was at the scene when the -- when the bomb -- well I was about a half a block away, I should say, from the bomb blast. I had my camera out, and I was actually doing an on-camera portion of a story that was for -- supposed to be for tonight. Heard the bomb blast. We took the camera and ran in the direction, the direction we thought the blast was coming from. We walked past -- we were trying to make our way through people who were evacuated the market area. I was -- again was in the -- in this market where there were probably hundreds of people buying their groceries before their sabbath dinner.

We made our way out of the market. And then right around the corner -- right around the corner from the market was where the blast had taken place. We tried to determine where this -- where -- what exactly had happened. It was really unclear at that moment because the bus itself was still intact and we saw some broken windows. But it really wasn't clear whether this was a bus bombing or whether the bomb was somewhere else. Indications now from eyewitnesses are that it -- that the suicide bomber attacked right as she was getting on the bus or right there at that bus stop.

So coming past me as I was walking with the camera, also my cell phone in my hand trying to report to our international desk what was going on, people coming towards me, the walking wounded. Saw some just horrific injuries. People bleeding from some head wounds, people with that their arms, their legs bleeding -- just a horrific scene. And very disorienting with everybody moving in different directions trying to figure out how to get away from the blast site and locate where that was.

HEMMER: You mentioned the word gruesome, indeed it was gruesome to see the number of injured wheeling by me essentially on gurneys. Some in head braces, neck braces and several people coming by, including one man, probably in his mid-40s, with literally chunks of human flesh on his body as he was led away by police.

I think it may do well to serve our viewers, Jason, to give them a better perspective of what happens along Jaffa Road and specifically in this area. There's a very busy market that used to be a lot busier in weeks past. But frankly, over the past couple of weeks, the number of people and customers and shoppers had died down.

Today, though, was a different scene. There were numerous people inside there. And what the police are saying, Jason, is that the suicide bomber, the woman, actually tried to penetrate the market. But when she couldn't get through, due to security at the front of that area, she turned around and went back to the bus. And based on the conversations you had there with eyewitnesses, what did they tell you about what they saw? BELLINI: One thing I wanted to add to what you were saying was there were two guards. I remember seeing them. They were armed and standing there blocking the way for anyone who wanted to enter into the market. There were barricades on either side of them. They were standing in the middle.

So you would have had to walk right past them. They were eying everyone. They were even looking at my camera very carefully, before I went into the market to do the portion for my story. Eyewitnesses I spoke to immediately afterward, the people I spoke to don't remember seeing this person. They just remember being at this bus stop and then all after sudden a huge explosion. They weren't exactly sure where it came from, whether it was from the bus or from the sidewalk. I guess when one of these things goes off, it is almost impossible to determine where you are. Everyone is moving in different directions.

HEMMER: That is to true, and a very good point, a valid point too. When I arrived at the scene, I wasn't sure whether to go right or left. Obviously, a lot of times you just follow the sirens. One other think, Jason, that street was so calm. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and it was so calm before that blast went off.

BELLINI: It is interesting, taxi drivers, since I have been here, pointed out me just about every time I have been on that road, how empty it is compared to several months ago. Of course, they are disappointed because they don't have fares to pick up on that road. But I found that today, people were out and about. Just before going to the market, I was stopped by the street corner where a jazz band was playing. There were probably 50 people there, drinking beer right on the corner of the street, enjoying themselves, seemingly very carefree.

I think that most of those young people I was with at that point had no idea that something like this -- I don't think they imagined this happening again to them. They knew in their heads that this was certainly possible. But I think people have been noticing the security and feeling very confident about the security that it is really omnipresent here.

HEMMER: The other thing, though, is when you look around and first arrive in this part of the world, you are quite aware of the possibility. I think for the first couple of days -- I've talked to other colleagues about this. The first couple of days, you are quite aware. You are looking around and making sure everything is OK here and there. But over time, your mind gets distracted. You are busy or doing other things. And It is easy to lose track of the possibility that random terror could hit at any point. Jason, thanks. Jason Bellini, again, his exclusive pictures from near that scene earlier today.

Clearly, there are political implications now that must be examined from a number of different perspectives. Colin Powell is here. There are questions now of whether he will meet with Arafat tomorrow. Maybe the meeting happens, maybe it doesn't. But off to Bill Schneider now in Washington, D.C., who can talk a little more about the stakes here, essentially, and what today's event may mean for Colin Powell's mission. Bill, we say welcome and good afternoon to you in D.C.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Good afternoon in Israel this. This is, of course, an event that appears to send a message. It seems to be aimed at undercutting Colin Powell's mission. What else could it mean? Especially since the responsibility has been taken by the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is closely linked to Yasser Arafat's own organization. It raises the simple question do they want cease-fire.

It looks like it is threatening the United States with tremendous pressure to stop the meaning between Powell and Arafat. Well, we are getting the obvious implication that neither side here really wants a cease-fire. Or to be more precise, both Israel and Palestinians believe something else is more important and should take priority over a cease-fire. Israelis clearly believe before there can be an acceptable cease-fire, they have to complete their mission of wiping out the terrorist threat in the West Bank and Palestinian community.

And the Palestinians believe that before they can accept a cease- fire, they have to make sure their political demands are on the agenda. Only the United States puts top priority to a cease-fire.

HEMMER: Yes, listen, when Colin Powell sits down now in the coming days, he will meet again, we're told, with Ariel Sharon, if he meets tomorrow with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, how does his mission change right now? Or how much more difficult is it to stay on message that the United States had coming in at this event, Bill?

SCHNEIDER: The message has to be exactly what President bush said when he spoke a week ago. He said suicide bombings are not the way to get politically. What you want politically is to end the Israeli occupation and show progress toward what you ultimately desire, a Palestinian state. Powell has it make it clear to Yasser Arafat, terrorism is counter productive.

So far, the Palestinians believe it is not counter productive. In fact, they believe terrorism works. It puts their demands on the agenda. Powell has it make it clear to them -- I'm not sure how he does this -- but what the president has said is your suicide bombings work against those objectives. They set them back.

HEMMER: Bill, thanks. Bill Schneider is D.C. We will talk again. As we continue our live coverage here live in Jerusalem, six dead, 65 wounded. Clearly, there are obstacles right now to this mission for Colin Powell. We called it yesterday a search for peace, but right now, it might be an absolute mission that will not possibly come on this trip. But some are talking right now that if the U.S. truly wants to be a broker in the Middle East situation right now, that Colin Powell's mission will not just take place one time, but possibly several times in the very near future.

You are looking at the scene from Jaffa Road earlier today. Our coverage will continue after a quick break here. Back in a moment.




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