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Suicide bomber in Israel's Tel Aviv kills 9

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TEL AVIV, Apr 17 (Reuters) A Palestinian suicide bomber killed nine people and wounded 60 others in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv today in an attack a spokesman for the Islamic militant group Hamas called an act of ''self-defence''.

The Israeli government of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it held the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority responsible for the bombing, which was claimed by the Islamic Jihad group.

Olmert said he was weighing a response, adding the attack could have been timed to coincide with the swearing in of Israel's new parliament in Jerusalem following March elections.

The bombing occurred at a sandwich stand in the middle of the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover. Medics put the number killed at nine, not including the bomber.

''I am beyond despair,'' said Asher Bracha, 46, the owner of a small market two doors from the shop that blew up.

''I heard a deafening blast. I knew it was another attack.'' Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, condemned the bombing, as did the United States.

''It is a despicable act of terror for which there is no excuse or justification,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The bomber struck as Olmert was trying to form a coalition after his centrist Kadima party won most seats in elections late last month and three weeks after Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority following its own election win in January.

It was the first suicide bombing inside the Jewish state to kill Israelis since Olmert took over from Ariel Sharon, who was incapacitated by a massive stroke in early January.

STOPPED BY GUARD An Arab television station aired a video tape showing a baby-faced militant from Islamic Jihad, holding an assault rifle, and said he carried out the attack.

''We tell the criminal enemy that there are more martyrdom-seekers (suicide bombers), God willing,'' said Sami Salim Hamad, 18, from near Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

Family members said Hamad worked as a waiter in Jenin and told his employer on Sunday he would not be coming back to work.

Witnesses said they saw him just before the attack.

''I saw a young guy, who was carrying a blue bag. He was stopped by a security guard who asked what was in the bag. He opened the bag and everything went up in the air,'' witness Moussa al-Zedad told Reuters Television at the scene.

Live television pictures showed bystanders with blood on their shirts immediately after the attack.

The sandwich shop -- target of a suicide attack in January in which only the bomber died -- was wrecked while pools of blood lay on the ground outside. Three cars were also damaged.

Olmert said Israel would respond appropriately.

''We will know how to respond in the way and manner required, and we will continue to act with all means at our disposal to thwart further such incidents,'' he said.

An Olmert spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the government held the new Palestinian Authority responsible.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the attack ''a natural result of the continued Israeli crimes against our people''.

''Our people are in a state of self-defence and they have every right to use all means to defend themselves,'' he said.

Ghazi Hamad, a Palestinian cabinet spokesman, added: ''The occupation bears the responsibility for its actions.'' Some militants said the attack was to avenge Israeli air strikes and artillery barrages against positions in the Gaza Strip from where militants fire rockets into Israel.

In parts of Gaza, Islamic Jihad gunmen fired into the air and gave out sweets to celebrate the attack, witnesses said.

Hamas itself has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings against Israelis since a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 but has largely abided by a year-old ceasefire. Islamic Jihad has carried out most of the suicide bombings since then.

REUTERS CH RN2143

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