Palestinian bombers seized in high-speed chase

By Josef Federman The Associated Press

JERUSALEM – Police seized Palestinians with explosives who were on their way to carry out a bombing yesterday, officials said, capping a high-speed chase that brought large parts of the country to a standstill just days before national elections.

An attack could have deep repercussions for the election. The centrist Kadima Party, which holds a wide lead in opinion polls, has been accused by its hawkish rivals of being too soft on the Palestinians.

Past elections have been affected by violence.

Reflecting the jitters, Israel has banned Palestinians from entering the country until after the March 28 election and greatly restricted movement through the Gaza Strip’s main cargo crossing. With the closure causing shortages of bread and other essential items in Gaza, Israel allowed the crossing to temporarily reopen yesterday.

Security officials declared a high alert at midmorning yesterday, warning that an attacker had infiltrated the country. Police beefed up forces and erected makeshift roadblocks in Jerusalem, then moved the alert to central Israel after determining a group of assailants had fled the city in a van.

Police erected roadblocks on the two major highways linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, snarling traffic for miles. With sirens wailing, police chased the suspected van for several miles, as a helicopter followed overhead.

“We were traveling along the highway, on a beautiful spring day … and suddenly we saw a helicopter swoop down and anti-terror forces speed by,” Yonatan Danino, a witness, told Israel Radio. “Suddenly we saw a car with security forces surrounding it. They even came out of the bushes.”

The van was stopped at a roadblock near Latrun, located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Police removed the bomb from the car, setting off a panic among nearby motorists.

“People started to run away from the cars,” Danino said. “Police were shouting into megaphones, ‘live bomb, live bomb,’ and people were running in every direction.”

Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the assailants were carrying 11 pounds of explosives and intended to plant a bomb in central Israel. He said 10 people were arrested.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but security forces have been on high alert ahead of the election, especially since Israeli forces assaulted a West Bank jail last week and arrested six wanted Palestinians.

Amid concerns of violence, Israel reopened the Karni crossing, the main gateway for Gaza’s imports and exports, for a second straight day in an attempt to alleviate a food shortage in the area.

The crossing was opened on Monday, but closed after about 30 minutes due to Israeli security concerns. Militants have attacked Karni in the past.

Israel has closed the Karni crossing for most of the past two and a half months, warning of more attacks. The closure has caused a shortage in Gaza of bread, dairy supplies and other essential goods.

The Palestinians hoped to bring into Gaza 100 trucks of food and medicine yesterday, about 20 of them carrying wheat, said the director of the Palestinian border authority, Salim Abu Safiah.

“I hope that the Israelis will stick to their promises and will open Karni totally in the coming days,” Abu Safiah said. “Gaza is suffering with the shortage of foodstuffs.”

Under an agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to boost cargo traffic through Karni. The accord was meant to give momentum to peace efforts after Israel’s summer pullout from Gaza. But the deal was never implemented.

The United States, concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, has been pressing the sides to work out an agreement on Karni’s opening.