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Explosion Hits Diplomatic Convoy in Northern Gaza

Aired October 15, 2003 - 05:30   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Now more on that breaking news story out of the Middle East. Quickly, an explosion hit a diplomatic convoy in northern Gaza within the last hour and Americans may be among the casualties.
Let's head to Jerusalem now and Chris Burns -- Chris, what can you tell us?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, we have official sources saying at least three bodies were seen at the scene, one injured that was helicoptered out to a hospital inside Israel. Israel Radio saying as many as four Americans killed. But we have the first official -- some first official indications that these are, indeed, Americans. It's coming from the Palestinian side.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Middle East -- the chief peace negotiator for the Palestinian Authority -- sending his deepest condolences to the American government, in his words, the American people and the families of those who were killed.

He says that the monitors, American monitors on the ground in the territories are there on Palestinian request and he is offering a joint Palestinian-American team to investigate.

This convoy was passing on a road in northern Gaza near the Eretz crossing with Israel on an open road. According to official sources, it was a roadside bomb that went off, that exploded as the lead vehicle of this convoy was passing over it. According to official sources, these are most likely private security people and that the American diplomats were in the other vehicles.

So that is what we have up to now.

No immediate reaction from the Israeli government. They're saying they're still trying to get together the facts on the ground. U.S. officials saying officially that they are aware of the explosion and that they're looking into it. But up to now, so far on the Palestinian side, they are confirming -- implying that Americans were among the dead -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Well, Chris, having said that, would it be fair to say that this convoy was targeted?

BURNS: Well, it's quite possible. Again, there's no claim of responsibility. There are plenty of weapons there inside Gaza. So that's very, very difficult to say. But obviously, yes, the militants are very angry with the Americans for a number of reasons, and probably of late the U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution yesterday that was calling for the condemnation of Israel's, what they call a security fence along, inside the West Bank, that the Palestinians call a Berlin Wall.

This also comes as the Israelis are cracking down inside southern Gaza, trying to cut off what they say are tunnels into Egypt that are used to smuggle weapons inside Gaza. This chaos of weapons, the Palestinian Authority prime minister has called, trying to get it under control. And this U.S. involvement, it's widely known that the CIA has been working with the Palestinian Authority security forces to try to reign in the militants, to try to end this chaos of weapons. And appropriately one of these weapons went off today, killing some Americans -- Carol.

COSTELLO: And we're looking at grizzly pictures of the scene right now. We just got these pictures in just a short time ago. And, again, you know, I'm wondering, who is conducting the investigation? What's happening to the bodies? Where are they being taken from the scene?

BURNS: Well, the bodies are obviously being taken to where the closest U.S. presence is, which is inside Israel. Where they'll be taken to after that is not clear. The -- one, there is at least one person injured that was helicoptered to an Israeli hospital. That is as far as we know. We don't know of any other injuries at this point. That is the information we have up to now.

Again, sketchy. You must excuse me for some sketchy information. Up to now, we're still trying to confirm that on the ground.

COSTELLO: I absolutely understand.

Chris Burns, we'll let you break away so you can gather more information for us.

I want to bring in our senior international editor now, David Clinch, because A.P. is reporting some interesting things. They're quoting a Palestinian taxi driver who actually saw the explosion.

DAVID CLINCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL EDITOR: Right, absolutely. We are trying to get our eyes on the ground there. But A.P. has a reporter there on the ground who has spoken to some eyewitnesses, indicating that the first vehicle, as Chris reported it, the first vehicle in this convoy was the one that was hit and destroyed.

Others were damaged. There are two or three key points we're still trying to get our hands on. Was the convoy targeted? Well, when you think about the lead vehicle being the one that's hit, it becomes clearer that the convoy was being targeted.

COSTELLO: And this was clearly marked as an American vehicle?

CLINCH: Absolutely. We can see in the pictures and we're told for sure that the vehicles were all marked clearly as American diplomatic vehicles.

COSTELLO: And this A.P. reporter is also saying that he saw a gray wire with an on/off switch...

CLINCH: Absolutely.

COSTELLO: ... leading from the scene of the attack to a small concrete room at the side of the road.

CLINCH: Right.

COSTELLO: This happened near a gas station.

CLINCH: Absolutely. Now, again, the key question, was the convoy targeted? If it was targeted, whether there were pmts there at the time or not, whether it was a timed device or was it a specific targeting? Evidence like this, if the A.P. reporter is seeing things accurately, that there was a wire with an on/off switch leading to the scene, leads, again, to the assumption that this was targeting.

COSTELLO: We have on the phone the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat.

Mr. Erakat, are you there?


COSTELLO: What do you know about this?

ERAKAT: Nothing much. All I can say is that we in the Palestinian Authority condemn with the strongest possible terms this situation that led to the killing of four Americans. And we offer our deepest condolences and sincere condolences to President Bush, the American people and the families of the victims.

These are American monitors that have come here at our request, at Palestinian request, in accordance with the road map. And we offer to have, we offer to have an immediate joint Palestinian-American investigation committee to investigate the matter.

COSTELLO: Is it conceivable to you, sir, that a U.S. convoy would be targeted?

ERAKAT: I don't, I really cannot jump to conclusions. I'm not an investigator. But I think that it is against the Palestinian national interests. I don't envisage any Palestinian group to target Americans here, especially if they are American monitors coming here at our request for the peace process, for the road map.

So this is an act against the Palestinian interests, against the Palestinian people, against the peace process. And we have...

COSTELLO: But we know, sir, that many Palestinians are quite angry at the Americans.

ERAKAT: Never. We have so many volunteers, Americans, Europeans, in the West Bank and Gaza, helping us. Never have there been any person, American or others, targeted. It's against the policy of the Palestinian people to target any foreigners. But for this we offer a joint investigation committee and meanwhile we condemn with the strongest possible terms this attack. And I offer President Bush, Secretary Powell, Mr. Wolf himself, John Wolf, Ambassador, my deepest and the deepest sincere condolences of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority for this tragic, horrific incident. And we offer the same condolences to the American people and to their families.

These people were here to help us, to help the Palestinian people.

COSTELLO: Yes. You were mentioning Assistant Secretary Wolf. He was there leading the U.S. coordination and monitoring mission in Jerusalem and he was also monitoring the situation there.

On the list of suspects, though, would you suspect Hamas or Islamic Jihad to be behind something like this?

ERAKAT: Madam, I would doubt totally any Palestinian group to be behind this.

COSTELLO: You would doubt?

ERAKAT: I would doubt, I would doubt any -- I cannot jump to any conclusions. I don't think this was...

COSTELLO: So if this U.S. convoy...

ERAKAT: I don't think this was a deliberate attack against Americans. I cannot jump to any conclusions. I don't exclude any possibilities. That's why I'm offering to have an investigation -- a joint investigation team between Americans and Palestinians. We have already formed an investigation, a Palestinian team to investigate. But I'm not an investigator. I cannot jump to conclusions. I think this act today is an act against the Palestinian people, against the interests of the Palestinian people and against the peace process.

COSTELLO: I think many Americans would be surprised if this U.S. convoy was a target that Hamas or Islamic Jihad would be ruled out as suspects in this case.

ERAKAT: All I urge the American administration and the American population at this hour of tragedy and at this hour of pain and sorrow for the lives of those four men, who were here for the peace process, to monitor the implementation of the road map, all I urge is some patience in order to know all the details. And we are going to have it open, an open investigation, and we welcome an American (AUDIO GAP).

COSTELLO: Mr. Erakat, are you still there? Have we lost Saeb Erakat?


COSTELLO: Are you still there?


Do you know where this convoy was going?

ERAKAT: Well, first of all, the convoy of the American monitors don't tell Israelis or Palestinians where they are going. They work in the West Bank. They work in the Gaza Strip. They watch things and with their own eyes, with their own timing. So I honestly don't know whether they were going anywhere because we, as Palestinians, submit to them daily reports on how, what happens in our areas. And the Israelis submit to them daily reports. So I think their mission is to verify what they hear from the Palestinian report and the Israeli report.

COSTELLO: Apparently inside the car, the first car in the convoy that was blown up, there were security personnel inside. Do you know if that was private security or were they American officials?

ERAKAT: I don't know anything, ma'am. I don't know the details. All I know is that this is a group of American monitors who have come here at Palestinian request, who are come -- who have come here for the peace process, who have come here to help Palestinians and Israelis. And we condemn with the strongest possible terms this incident and we offer our deepest condolences and we offer to have a joint investigation committee and we don't want anybody to jump to conclusions.

This is against the peace process, against the Palestinian people and against all those Israelis and Palestinians who want a revival of the peace process.

COSTELLO: All right, Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, joining us live on DAYBREAK this morning.


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