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May 02, 2003

Radical cleric 'taught'bomb suspects

Two Britons who Israeli authorities say were involved in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv were taught by a spiritual leader from north London, the BBC has learned.

Sheik Omar Bakri, of the fringe radical Muslim group Al-Mahajiroun, said the two men had come to him for instruction.

Three people died and more than 50 were injured in the bombing at a bar Mike's Place on Tuesday.

Israeli police are continuing to search for Omar Khan Sharif, from Derby, who they say tried to carry out a bombing.

I did not know them except on the level as teacher and student
Sheik Omar Bakri

His accomplice, Asif Muhammad Hanif, 21, from London, is thought to have caused the fatal explosion by blowing himself up.

Mr Sharif, 27, is said to have run away when his bomb failed to go off.

Mr Bakri told BBC News: "To be honest with you I knew both of them, but I did not know them except on the level as teacher and student."

The cleric, who founded the fundamentalist group in Britain, was not prepared to condemn the suicide bombing.

"There is no way for me to condemn the self-sacrificing operation that took place in Palestine against occupying forces," he said.

But the Muslim Council of Britain, which says it represents more than 350 Islamic organisations and mosques in the UK, has already criticised comments by Al-Muhajiroun as inflammatory.

Spokesman Iqbal Sacranie said: "Let us be absolutely clear, the loss of innocent life is against the laws of humanity."

BBC social affairs editor Niall Dickson said reports of the men's involvement had shocked the British Muslim community.

"The vast majority will deplore the killing of innocents and be offended that this was done under the banner of Islam," he said.


UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has condemned the bombing.

The UK's ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Coles, has pledged "total co-operation" between British and Israeli intelligence services.

And Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has offered his condolences to relatives and friends of those killed in the "terrible" suicide bombing.

In Derby, police are continuing to guard Mr Sharif's family home.

The blast came hours after new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas won approval for his cabinet.

Although Israeli television showed British passports said to belong to the pair, the UK Foreign Office said it could not be ruled out that they were fake.

"We are not in a position to confirm the identities," one official said.

"Until the investigation is complete we are not going to be in a position to confirm whether or not they are definitely British."

Israeli ambassador to London Zvi Shtauber said they were making "every effort" to find Mr Sharif.

The explosion did not delay the publication of a peace "roadmap" for the Middle East by international mediators.