15 wounded as Grad rocket strikes Ashkelon shopping mall

Casualties include mother, 3-yr-old daughter; warning siren fails to sound; J'lem: Bush visit won't prevent immediate response to attack.

GRAD ASHKELON 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
(photo credit: Channel 10)
15 people were wounded Wednesday evening, including a mother and her three-year-old daughter, when a Grad rocket fired from Gaza hit the Hutzot Shopping Center in Ashkelon. The rocket ripped through the roof of the mall, causing a large chunk of the roof to collapse in a huge pile of rubble and twisted metal. Four windows were blown out of the side of the building. The top floor of the building, which bore the brunt of the attack, is where offices and clinics are located. A hospital official said a woman and her young daughter were seriously wounded, along with another child. Another woman was seriously wounded, and several other people were lightly wounded, said the official, Leah Malul of Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. MDA reported 15 people wounded - four seriously, two moderately and nine lightly, adding that all the casualties had been evacuated from the site of the attack, including four people who were briefly trapped under the rubble. Witnesses said an early warning siren meant to give a few seconds for people to take cover did not sound before the rocket slammed into the mall. Two terror groups, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for the attack. Israel believes Islamic Jihad is getting the Grads from Iran. "It's part of the Iranian war against Israel," former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel Radio. The attack came as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush concluded their meeting in Jerusalem. Olmert said at the end of the talks that Israel would not tolerate attacks from Gaza terrorists. "We will not be able to tolerate continuous attacks on innocent civilians. We hope we will not have to act against Hamas in other ways with the military power that Israel hasn't yet started to use in a serious manner in order to stop it," said Olmert before learning of the attack on Ashkelon. A government official was quoted by Channel Two as saying that Bush's visit "won't prevent an immediate Israeli response" to the attack. The channel quoted another Jerusalem official as saying, "We are on a certain path of an extensive military confrontation with Hamas." Following the rocket strike, Defense Minister Ehud Barak invited visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to accompany him on a tour of the scene of the attack. Barak met Rice at Jerusalem's King David Hotel and the two discussed a series of regional, political and security issues. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai visited Ashkelon to show solidarity with residents. Holding a loud speaker Yishai said, "We will act with all our strength, and the required operation will take place." A disgruntled crowd heckled the ministers, shouting "Bring down the government." Meanwhile, two Kadima faction members called on the government to assassinate Hamas leaders. "Hamas leaders must be assassinated. We need to prove to Bush and to the world that Israel can fight terror," said MK Shlomo Mula. Knesset House Committee chairman David Tal, also of Kadima, said that "Israel must sever the hand that is launching rockets at Israel." Likud released a statement calling for a "policy of strength" and urging the government to "topple the Hamas regime." Separately, Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar said the attack was a result of the government's "continuing weak policy of restraint" that he said was effectively "the abandonment of residents of the South." He called for a wide-scale military operation in Gaza "in order to restore security to southerners." US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama strongly condemned the attack. "As the United States joins Israel in celebrating its 60th anniversary, today's cowardly rocket attack and tragic injuries remind us of the ongoing threats that Israelis face with courage and resolve," he said. "In the days and years to come, the United States must maintain its unshakable commitment to supporting Israel's right and capability to defend itself against these outrageous terrorist attacks, so that the Israeli people can live in peace and security," continued the senator. AP contributed to this reportM