Palestinian suicide bomber destroys bus, kills 3 Israelis

`Vicious terror attacks must stop now,' says U.S. peace envoy Zinni

November 30, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Three Israelis were killed in northern Israel last night when a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated an explosive aboard a bus in a blast so powerful that it ripped the vehicle apart.

Police said casualties were low only because the bus, en route from Nazareth to Tel Aviv, had relatively few passengers aboard when the explosion occurred near Hadera. Six people were injured and the bomber was killed.

The second deadly attack in three days was an embarrassment for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who on Wednesday promised "a 100 percent effort" to enforce a truce with Israel.

The bus exploded as new U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni was meeting with Palestinian security chiefs in Ramallah, where he was expected to press the officials to arrest militants intent on using violence to prevent talks with Israel.

Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, arrived here Monday with a Bush administration mandate to get both sides to stop fighting, but he has been met with nonstop violence that has claimed the lives of seven Israelis and seven Palestinians in the past three days.

"These vicious terror attacks must stop now if we are to create the environment that leads to peace," Zinni said in a statement issued last night through the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack and said that Arafat has ordered his police force to "chase the perpetrators and bring them to justice. ... The authority is working in its full capacity to put an end to all sorts of attacks against Israeli citizens."

Such attacks reinforce questions that have been raised repeatedly in recent months as to whether Arafat is unwilling to make arrests or has been so weakened by the rising popularity of extremist groups that he is incapable of regaining control.

Three hours after the bus bombing, another Israeli was wounded by a sniper as he drove along the Jordan Valley Highway.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who left last night on a trip to the United States, said he holds Arafat "directly responsible for these murderous operations." He held an emergency meeting with top military commanders and gave them a green light to "act against the terrorists."

There were dueling claims of responsibility for last night's attack. Some news accounts said the Islamic Jihad carried it out.

The militant wing of Fatah, the mainstream faction of Arafat's political party, claimed responsibility for the bombing in leaflets sent to the Reuters news agency, but its claim could not be verified early today. The group said it was partly responsible for shootings Tuesday in Afula that killed two Israelis.

If Fatah is responsible, it would mark an escalation for the group, which in the past had limited its attacks to Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - which it views as legitimate targets to end Israeli occupation - while condemning assaults within Israel proper.

Last night's bus bombing capped a day of bloodshed. Israeli soldiers shot and killed a suspected Palestinian car thief who tried to drive away from a checkpoint on the Jordan Valley Highway. The army said its fire also accidentally killed a Palestinian bystander.

Later in the afternoon, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Yaron Pikholtz, in a drive-by attack at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarm.

The suicide attack on bus No. 823 occurred about 8:30 p.m. Police said the bus left Nazareth about 7:40 p.m. and made several stops along the route, which goes through several Arab-Israeli villages and by an army base.

Bus driver Tal Goldberg told Israel Radio that the bomber boarded in Umm el-Fahm after saying goodbye to two companions, who patted him on the shoulder. He was dressed in neat, tailored clothes, Goldberg said, recalling that the man's hands trembled as he paid the fare and took a seat in the middle of the bus.

Police said the bomb detonated minutes after the stop in Umm el-Fahm. The midsection of the bus was blown away, and the center portion of the roof peeled back like the top of a tin can.

"It took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on," a man driving in front of the bus told Israeli television. "I tried to help, but after a few minutes I felt bad. I couldn't stand it anymore."

Zinni was meeting last night with Col. Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, when news arrived of the bus bombing. U.S. officials declined to comment on what the two discussed or how Zinni reacted to news of the attack.

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