Sides Divert from ‘Road Map’

JERUSALEM (Reuters)–A Palestinian suicide bomber killed at least 16 people and injured nearly 100 on a Jerusalem bus on Wednesday to avenge an Israeli bid to assassinate a Hamas leader; Israel struck back within minutes–killing seven.

US President Bush–watching his "road map” peace plan engulfed in a new cycle of killing within a week of its launch–condemned the bombing and said: "I call upon all the free world…to use every ounce of their power to prevent them.”

Hamas said it dispatched the bomber–disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew–to carry out the revenge attack. The blast tore through a crowded No. 14 bus near the city’s main open-air market and sent bodies and limbs flying through the air.

Minutes later–Israeli helicopters fired missiles in Gaza that killed two Hamas militants and five other Palestinians.

Bush launched the plan just last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas–in the hope of ending 32 months of bloodshed.

But strike and bloody counter-strike have followed. Hamas said it was responding to Israel’s failed bid on Tuesday to kill Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi–a co-founder of the radical Islamic movement–in a missile attack in Gaza on Tuesday.

"I heard the bomb and I came to help take people off,” one witness–Benny Peretz said. "I opened the door and I saw the terrorist’s head on the ground.

Police said the bomb was packed with nails for maximum effect. Body parts and pools of blood littered the sidewalk. The vehicle’s windows were shattered and its roof partly blown off.

David Baker–an official in Sharon’s office–told Reuters: "This was another example of unbridled Palestinian terrorism which must be stopped immediately by the Palestinian Authority.”

STRIKE IN GAZA

At the same time–scenes of carnage unfolded in Palestinian-ruled Gaza City–where Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at a car within minutes of the Jerusalem bombing.

Hamas identified one of the dead militants as Tito Massaoud–a leader of its military wing. An Israeli security source said he was involved in the launching of home-made Qassam rockets against southern Israel and Jewish settlemen’s in Gaza.

"Pools of blood–cut-off body parts–cut-off heads–this is what I saw,” one witness in Gaza said.

The spasm of violence came as Israel defended itself against a rare US rebuke for its attempted killing of Rantissi.

Sharon had ordered aides to turn over intelligence to US officials to back accusations that Rantissi–Hamas’s most public face–had been coordinating attacks on Israelis.

Israel killed one of Rantissi’s aides and a woman bystander in the attack on Tuesday. Hamas responded by firing rockets into a town in nearby Israel–prompting a second helicopter strike on Tuesday that killed three more Palestinians–all civilians.

Seeking to calm the situation–Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met Abbas and President Yasser Arafat and promised to try to restart talks with Hamas over Abbas’s appeal for a cease-fire. After Wednesday’s attacks–Arafat said: "The hellish–empty cycle of attacks and shootings must stop.”

Bush had expressed concern that the assassination attempt could weaken Abbas. "I also don’t believe the attacks helped Israeli security,” Bush said.

Sharon’s aides said Bush’s censure caught him by surprise but that he was standing firm.

Bush told aides to lean on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to stick to their commitmen’s to the road map–which stipulates reciprocal measures leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Some Israeli political commentators joined in the criticism of Sharon–including suggestions the right-wing leader had used the assassination attempt to try to mollify hardliners.

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