By MARK LAVIE
JERUSALEM – A powerful car bomb exploded today near a crowded outdoor market in the heart of Jerusalem, killing two bystanders on the day that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were scheduled to announce a truce.
Both of those killed near the Mahane Yehuda market were apparently Israeli Jews, Israeli Police Commissioner Yehuda Wilk said. Paramedics said 11 people were injured – most of them only slightly – near the market, which sells food, vegetables and clothing in Jewish west Jerusalem.
Flames burst from the car, which witnesses said moments earlier had been chased by police. Huge black plumes of smoke rose into the sky as wailing ambulances rushed to a narrow side street near the market.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though Israeli officials said they believed Palestinian militants, either from the Hamas or Islamic Jihad groups, were responsible. Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said the Palestinian Authority was also to blame because in recent weeks it had released scores of Islamic militants from prison.
Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin said the Palestinian uprising against Israel would continue but that his group was not responsible for the explosion.
Earlier in the afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had been scheduled to make separate announcements of a cease-fire – an effort to stop more than a month of fighting that has left at least 165 people dead and thousands wounded, most of them Palestinian.
The announcements were postponed without explanation before the explosion. After the blast, Israeli officials said they were standing by the truce reached the night before. Barak was to deliver a television address later this afternoon.
Arafat was scheduled to convene his Cabinet and had no immediate reaction to the Jerusalem bombing. Earlier in the day, Arafat’s office issued a statement urging Palestinians to “stick to peaceful means” in protests against Israel.
The explosion near the market was so powerful that police were unable to identify the make of the car, Jerusalem Police Chief Yair Yitzhaki said. One bystander said he tried to pull the woman victim from the flames.
“I saw her on the ground and her legs had been blown off,” said Yaakov Hassoum, who owns a store nearby. “I hoped she was alive, but she was dead.”
An Israeli soldier, Oshri Atun, said that just before the explosion, he saw a white sedan being chased by a police van with sirens wailing. The car turned into a side street, and seconds later the bomb exploded, Atun said.
Wilk said the assailants parked the car, rigged with large quantities of explosives, in a side street near the market. He said heavy police presence apparently deterred the assailants from trying to explode the bomb in the crowded market.
Police said they were checking whether the assailants got away.
For years, the market – spread over several blocks of a predominantly religious neighborhood – has been a choice target for those trying to sabotage peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It was the scene of a car bomb in November 1998 that killed two suicide bombers and wounded 21 other people. Hamas claimed responsibility. And in July 1997, two militants blew themselves up in the area, killing themselves and 16 shoppers.
The bombing came hours after both sides took tentative first steps to carry out the truce agreement.
Near Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, police bundled several dozen stone throwers in trucks and drove them away. Israel pulled back tanks from several spots in Gaza and lifted its siege of several West Bank towns, including Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron. Within a few hours, Palestinians were to be able to move freely in the West Bank, said Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli army spokesman.
Despite the moves toward restraint, violence persisted in some spots.
A 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in a rock-throwing clash with Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Hizme, near Jerusalem, and another Palestinian died in a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Al Khader. Elsewhere, clashes broke out in Gaza and the West Bank town of Hebron.
The conflict here erupted Sept. 28 in the West Bank and Gaza, the two heavily Palestinian territories that the Palestinians want as part of an independent state. Peres and Arafat’s meeting late Wednesday at Arafat’s Gaza City office was the first high-level talk between the sides since the conflict erupted.
“We hope we shall have two or three days without funerals,” Peres told Associated Press Television News. “We shall return to normalize the situation in the territories and return to peace talks.”
Palestinian peace negotiator Nabil Shaath said that according to the truce agreement, Israel would gradually lift its closure of Palestinian areas, permit Palestinian workers to return to jobs in Israel and open Gaza International Airport, as well as border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. Such restrictions have cost the Palestinian economy about $4 million a day, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees said Wednesday.
As a result of the truce agreement, Israel at the last minute froze attacks on Palestinian targets that were to come as retaliation for the killing of three Israeli soldiers in Wednesday gun battles. The three soldiers were the first to die in combat since Oct. 1.
Previous cease-fire agreements, including one brokered by President Clinton last month, have not held, with each side accusing the other of violating commitments.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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