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Bomber kills self, hurts 20 in Tel Aviv

Authorities see an effort to disrupt Palestinian vote

TEL AVIV -- A Palestinian suicide bomber posing as a peddler blew himself up in a Tel Aviv fast-food restaurant yesterday, and wounded 20 people. Officials said it appeared to have been an attempt to destabilize the region a week before Palestinian elections.

Islamic Jihad, the only Palestinian faction boycotting the vote, claimed responsibility. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, accused the group of trying to sabotage the election on Wednesday.

The Israeli response will be a key test for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took over after Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke this month. The bombing took place two days after Olmert said he was ready to resume talks after Israel's election in March, provided Abbas disarms militants.

The bomber, who witnesses said posed as a peddler selling disposable razors, walked into the restaurant and blew himself up, even though most of the customers were sitting relatively far away, at sidewalk tables, said a police spokesman, Mickey Rosenfeld.

The explosion wrecked ''The Mayor's Shwarma," a fast-food restaurant specializing in grilled meat sandwiches.

It is in a rundown area of Tel Aviv that has been hit repeatedly by attackers. Twenty people were wounded, one of them seriously, and the 22-year-old bomber was killed.

''I ran and saw the terrorist in two pieces," said Shlomo Eliav, 49, who owns a kiosk around the corner.

''I'm sick of this; I'm thinking of moving," he said.

Blood, shattered glass, and debris covered the ground near shops, as helmeted security forces cordoned off the area.

A crowd gathered outside the restaurant, surrounding a weeping older man in a fur hat who shouted out the name, ''Pini, Pini."

This was the seventh suicide bombing aimed at Israelis since Palestinian militants declared an unofficial truce in February 2005. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for all of them, six in Israel and one at a West Bank army checkpoint.

Islamic Jihad identified the assailant as Sami Abdel Hafez Antar, 22, from the West Bank city of Nablus.

The group released a video made by the bomber before the attack. He said he was ''offering himself to avenge the blood of martyrs." Brandishing a rifle and posing before a black Islamic Jihad flag, he said he carried out the bombing in response to Israeli attacks on civilians and militants.

At the family home, a four-story building in Nablus, Antar's mother was crying hysterically and could not talk. His brother, Sameh, 32, appeared puzzled.

''I can't say anything about those who sent him," Sameh said in an interview. ''All I can say is that my brother had everything. It seemed he wanted martyrdom, and he got what he wanted."

Israeli officials tried to link the bombing to Iran, which backs the Islamic Jihad. The Israeli public security minister, Gideon Ezra, said Iranian TV had been the first to broadcast the Islamic Jihad claim of responsibility.

''There is a trail to Iran and to Syria, where the extremist organizations are," Ezra told Israel TV.

Israeli military officials met late yesterday to discuss a response, but Olmert's options appeared to be limited. Harsh retaliation might backfire among moderate Israeli voters, Olmert's key constituency.

On Tuesday, Olmert said he was interested in talks toward a peace treaty with the Palestinians on condition they dismantle violent groups as stipulated in the ''road map" peace plan.

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