Jordanian soldier kills seven Israeli schoolgirls 6 more are wounded at scenic border site near Jordan River

Other soldiers subdue him

King Hussein assails shooting, abruptly returns from Spain

March 14, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Special correspondent Joshua Brilliant contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- A Jordanian soldier opened fire into a crowd of Israeli schoolgirls visiting a scenic spot near the Jordan River yesterday, killing seven of the girls and wounding six more before he was overpowered by other Jordanian soldiers.

The attack took place at a farming area where the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers meet south of the Sea of Galilee. The area has been known as "The Island of Peace" since Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994.

The shooting happened amid new tensions between Jordan's King Hussein and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Jordanian soldier who shot the girls was reported to have been deranged, and the attack was immediately denounced by Hussein, who rushed home from Spain after hearing the news.

The attack occurred about 10: 15 a.m. (3: 15 a.m. EST), shortly after a group of Israeli girls from a religious school in the Central Israeli town of Bet Shemesh arrived at an observation post that overlooks Israel, Jordan and Syria.

The place, formerly occupied by Israel, was returned to Jordanian sovereignty after the peace agreement with Israel.

The students, ages 12 to 14, passed through an Israeli checkpoint where the Israeli armed escorts with the group surrendered their weapons, as is the custom, parents and officials said. They crossed over to the Jordanian side and

disembarked from the bus.

The Israeli teachers were being briefed by Jordanian officials when a Jordanian soldier on the hill grabbed a rifle from one of his comrades and opened fire at the group below.

L Rosa Heemi, a teacher with the group, heard the first shots.

"I saw a Jordanian soldier fire from the observation post," she told Israeli television. "I shouted to the children to get down the slope. The girls began to hide. The soldier realized he could not see us, so he advanced to the edge and fired face to face. When he changed cartridges, [the gun] stopped working. It was a nightmare."

Jordanian soldiers who had called out to the gunman reached him and overpowered him, according to eyewitnesses interviewed on television. The gunman was later identified as 26-year-old Ahmed Moussa, an army driver from a village near the scene of the shooting.

A Jordanian woman identified as Moussa's mother told the Reuters news agency that her son had a "mental illness" and had recently acquired heavy debts.

Natalie Boliti, 13, watched the scene in horror yesterday from the bus window. She and several other girls had decided not to join their classmates on the walk.

"I heard shots. Then we saw everyone running down the hill," said Natalie upon her return to Bet Shemesh last night. "I fell to the floor and began to scream."

The teen-ager said when she first heard the gunshots she thought it was "a joke" or some kind of a drill.

"Then I saw my principal opening his arms and pushing the students down the hill," said Natalie, her hands gesturing wildly. "'A friend of mine was shot from here to here," she added, running her hand from her neck to her stomach. "Only one of the Jordanians tried to stop him."

Natalie and her classmates were among 80 girls who were on the three-day field trip. Yesterday, the eighth-graders were taken to the Jordanian border tourist spot, while two classes of seventh-graders were busy with other activities, according to parents interviewed last night.

"I saw the gunman. He held his gun. He was shooting, and then he started shooting again. He was a bad guy with big eyes," Hila Ivri, 14, told Reuters at a hospital in northern Israel.

The girls were taken to hospitals in Jordan and Israel. Two died in Israel. Seven Israeli girls were taken to the nearby Shuna hospital in Jordan, where five of them were pronounced dead.

According to an Associated Press report from Jordan, dozens of Jordanian farmers crammed into a hospital hallway to donate blood -- some of which was used to save an Israeli girl who had a bullet removed from her chest.

"It is sad, because these are innocent children of the age of my daughters," farmer Mohammad Khalayeh told the AP.

Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan and Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai rushed to the scene. Hassan described the shooting as "a murderous act carried out by a Jordanian soldier on his own."

Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul-Karim al Kabariti said the Jordanian soldier would be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

The shooting happened against the backdrop of a rift between )) Israel and Jordan over Israel's planned development of a new Jewish neighborhood in Arab East Jerusalem. Hussein, Israel's closest ally in the Arab world, sent an emotional letter to Netanyahu earlier this month, accusing the Israeli leader of driving the Middle East "towards an abyss of bloodshed" with his policies.

Hussein telephoned Netanyahu from his aircraft as he returned to the Middle East from Spain and said he hoped to visit the families of the victims.

"I can only say that I feel a deep sense of shame and anger that this thing should have happened," the king said later.

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