Bomb shatters bus in Israel At least 20 killed one week after Hamas suicide blasts

March 03, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A bomb destroyed a public bus in downtown Jerusalem this morning, killing at least 20 persons and injuring 14, according to initial reports.

The blast came just one week after Palestinian suicide bombers set off blasts that killed 27 persons, rocked the peace process and threatened the prospects for re-election of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

A caller to Israel Radio's Arabic service said the bomb had been set off by the violent wing of the Islamic group Hamas, but the claim was not verified as of this morning.

The explosion, at 6:22 a.m. at a key intersection of Jaffa Street, Jerusalem's main commercial street, was powerful. It laid open the red-and-white public No. 18 bus, the same bus line hit last Sunday. A body 35 yards away was still on fire from the heat of the explosion 20 minutes later.

"Things repeat themselves. I was two meters from the explosion, and saw parts of bodies 40 meters away. The windows were shattered," said one eyewitness.

"I was going up the steps with Maurice from the post office, and we heard the explosion," said another eyewitness, who gave his name as Chaim. "We didn't see people in the bus. I said, 'Thank God, there are no casualties.' But only after I found parts of bodies on the ground, I understood it was serious."

Army and police swarmed over the area, and a police helicopter hovered above as rescue personnel pulled bodies from the charred bus and laid them on the street under blankets.

The blast destroyed storefronts all along the city block, and police checked carefully among the shattered glass for more victims as burglar alarms continued to wail.

"This is a disaster, a disaster," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said when informed of the bomb, according to a spokesman.

Israeli President Ezer Weizman, whose role is largely symbolic, called for a suspension of the talks with Palestinians.

Hamas claimed responsibility for last week's twin bombings of a bus in Jerusalem and at a hitchhiking post in Ashkelon.

Maj. Gen. Arieh Amit, the commander of the police in Jerusalem, said that the latest attack was similar to last week's explosions. There may be fewer victims because of the early hour of today's attack, when fewer people were on the bus.

Following last week's attack, Israel imposed a strict closure on the Gaza Strip and Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

"Even a closure can not prevent an attack," Minister of Health Ephriam Sneh acknowledged this morning. "The real war against terrorism is pinpoint attacks. Actions against Hamas terrorist centers, in cooperation with the Palestinian authority, may prevent attacks."

The military closure is not full-proof and is virtually impossible to enforce in Jerusalem, which is shared by an Arab population on the east side of the city and Jewish population on the west.

"We need steps within East Jerusalem not to let them get on buses without a stringent check," Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, minister of housing, said today. "We have to suspend the talks immediately and react strongly. The Palestinian authority has to do more steps. It must be clear that irrespective of religion or party, we will not be silent. We are talking about our lives."

Last week's explosions shattered a six-month lull in bombings and caused an uproar in the Israeli and Palestinian relations. Mr. Peres demanded that Mr. Arafat crack down swiftly on Hamas, although the bombers had come from a village near Hebron still under Israeli control.

The blasts also shook the Israeli national election campaign, causing the popularity of Mr. Peres to plummet and raising the hopes of the right-wing opposition parties of a return to power.

Mr. Peres is seeking to continue the center-left coalition of the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr. Peres visited the scene 90 minutes after the bombing. There were boos and shouts for him to resign from Israelis who had gathered there.

Last week, both Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat condemned the attack but vowed to continue the peace process.

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