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Strike and strikeback stain peace plan

Jerusalem, June 11 (Reuters): A Palestinian suicide bomber killed at least 16 people and injured nearly 100 on a Jerusalem bus today to avenge an Israeli bid to assassinate a Hamas leader; Israel struck back within minutes, killing seven.

President George W. 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 number 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 yesterday to kill Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, a co-founder of the radical Islamic movement, in a missile attack in Gaza.

“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, said: “This was another example of unbridled Palestinian terrorism which must be stopped immediately by the Palestinian Authority.”

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

Israel killed one of Rantissi’s Strike and strithe attack yesterday. Hamas responded by firing rockets into a town in nearby Israel, prompting a second helicopter strike yesterday that killed three more Palestinians — all civilians.

After today’s attacks, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said: “The hellish, empty cycle of attacks and shootings must stop.”

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