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Israelis chase down suspected bomber

LATRUN JUNCTION, Israel -- With sirens wailing and blue lights flashing, Israeli police chased a van carrying explosives on a main highway yesterday and captured a group of Palestinians who defense officials say planned a major bombing ahead of national elections.

Israel's parliamentary election is set for March 28; Palestinian attacks have altered the outcome of past balloting.

After chasing the suspected bomber and his companions halfway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, security forces extended a closure on the West Bank and Gaza through election day.

AP Television News video showed the 10 Palestinians removed from the van at gunpoint, stripped to their underwear, and forced to lie face down in a field next to the highway, arms extended. Sappers took away a 15-pound bomb, concealed in a bag.

Jerusalem police commander Ilan Franco said the suspected bomber had ties to the militant group Islamic Jihad. Authorities said he planned to blow himself up in central Israel, without pinpointing the location.

Islamic Jihad has been responsible for all seven such attacks during a yearlong cease-fire largely observed by others, including Hamas, the larger Islamic group.

Hamas is forming a new government after sweeping Palestinian elections in January and has indicated it will continue the truce.

At midday yesterday, a police helicopter flew in ever-tightening circles above the four-lane Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, looking for the blue van.

Based on directions from the helicopter, police set up roadblocks on the heavily traveled highway, snarling traffic for miles.

The van was first seen in the hills near the suburb of Mevasseret Zion, and police joined the pursuit.

Elite police commandos with automatic weapons took part. Oz Eliasi, a police officer involved in the chase, said the van ran two roadblocks before it was stopped by police six miles past the Latrun junction, a main interchange.

Eliasi told Channel 2 television that police initially forced the driver out of the van. Police then saw a Palestinian peeking out the rear window and realized there were passengers, he added.

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