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Bystander-hit bomber strikes before death

Ariel (West Bank), Oct. 27 (Reuters): A Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a Jewish settlement today, killing three Israeli officers and wounding 20 people.

The Palestinian was punched, kicked and shot by bystanders but managed to detonate the bomb he was carrying before he died. The Israeli army said soldiers and civilians had managed to prevent heavier casualties.

The attack coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s biggest Cabinet dispute since taking office 19 months ago — a crisis over settlement-funding that threatened to shatter his ruling coalition.

In Tel Aviv, the leadership of the Labour Party, Sharon’s main partner in the government, convened to discuss whether to vote against the 2003 state budget, a move that would lead it out of the coalition and raise prospects for an early election.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the blast at a petrol station at Ariel, one of the biggest Jewish settlements in occupied West Bank. There are some 145 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in what the international community regards as a violation of international law, a position Israel disputes.

“I saw the gas station manager and his worker had spotted the terrorist and then they grabbed him,” witness Yehiel Hazan told Israel Radio at Ariel, 25 km east of Tel Aviv and home to some 17,000 settlers.

Shahar Keshet, a motorist who stopped for petrol, said he ran from his car with his pistol and approached the Palestinian.

“We started to punch and kick him in the head. But he didn’t lose consciousness,” Keshet told Israel’s Channel Two television. One of those grappling with the Palestinian shouted, “I see an explosives belt,” and Keshet said: “I put a bullet or two in (the bomber’s) head without a second thought.”

Police officers at the scene said soldiers and another bystander also shot at the Palestinian, who managed to trigger the explosives before dying. But Channel Two said police were investigating whether the gunfire had detonated the bomb.

Shortly after the Ariel incident, Israeli soldiers killed two al-Aqsa militants in the West Bank city of Nablus. Palestinians called it an assassination. The army said the men died in a gun battle in which a soldier was wounded. The army said a major, a lieutenant and a non-commissioned officer were killed in the settlement blast, which occurred as dozens of soldiers packed a snack bar at the petrol station on their return to West Bank bases after weekend leave.

“The alertness of the civilians and quick reaction of the soldiers prevented a bigger and more serious attack,” said Colonel David Menachem, an army commander in the West Bank.

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