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Israel, Syria spar over bombing

Damascus accused of support for Hamas militants

JERUSALEM -- This week's suicide attack in Israel has sparked a war of words between Israel and Syria and increased pressure on the Israeli government to finish the West Bank barrier that many Israelis believe saves lives.

In Gaza, meanwhile, four Palestinians were killed in clashes yesterday after Israeli troops found a tunnel leading to a Jewish settlement.

As Israel mourned its 16 dead from Tuesday's twin bus bombings in the southern desert city of Beersheba, officials ratcheted up their rhetoric against Syria, hinting at possible military action. The militant group Hamas, whose leaders are based in Syria, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Syria and Hamas accused Israel of trying to aggravate tensions.

Although no Israeli strike appeared imminent -- security officials said they had not begun discussing the possibility -- the heated rhetoric underscored Israel's growing impatience with Syrian support for Palestinian militants.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israel's president that the bus bombings, the deadliest attack in Israel in nearly a year, were carried out on direct orders from Hamas leaders in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

A senior adviser to Sharon, Raanan Gissin, warned earlier that neither Hamas nor Syria was ''immune" to an Israeli strike. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Syria's support for terrorists ''will have very clear consequences."

However, the chief of Israeli military intelligence refused to point a finger directly at Syria.

''We did not directly connect the terror attack that was carried out in Beersheba to the [Hamas] headquarters in Damascus," Major General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash said in an interview with Channel 10 television. But he also stressed there is ''wide and comprehensive support from Damascus" for militants in the West Bank and Gaza.

Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, was quoted as saying threats would ''worsen the already aggravated situation in the region." Ahmed Haj Ali, an adviser to the Syrian information minister, said Syria was taking the Israeli talk seriously.

Hamas issued its own statement from Damascus, accusing Israel of trying to provoke a confrontation and insisting its actions against Israelis are planned and executed from the Palestinian territories, not Syria.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that Israel has a right to defend itself, that it does not seek US approval to do so, and that the US government has spoken out often on Syria's support for terrorism.

Israel last struck a target inside Syria on Oct. 5, when its planes bombed a training camp of the militant group Islamic Jihad outside Damascus. Its most obvious target in Syria today would be Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997.

Tuesday's bombings increased criticism on Sharon for moving too slowly to finish the 425-mile West Bank barrier. Construction has been delayed by legal challenges, and the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands recently ruled the barrier violates international law.

The barrier hasn't reached the Beersheba area, allowing relatively free access for Palestinian militants from nearby Hebron.

In the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, four Palestinians died in fighting after the army's discovery of a tunnel leading toward a nearby Jewish settlement.

Israeli troops also ordered 6,000 Palestinians from their homes in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza while the army destroyed two buildings it said were used to stage attacks.

Also yesterday, thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel ended an 18-day hunger strike. Qadoura Fares of the Palestinian Cabinet said negotiations were under way on prisoners' demands.

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