Seven killed in West Bank bus ambush

Palestinian militants wearing Israeli uniforms wound at least 15 more

Three gunmen escape manhunt

Palestinian Authority condemns attack

Israel calls off scheduled talks

July 17, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian militants wearing Israeli military uniforms killed seven people and wounded at least 15 more near a Jewish settlement on the West Bank yesterday when they ambushed an armored bus by setting off a roadside bomb.

After disabling it with the bomb and grenades, the gunmen stormed the bus, throwing explosives through small non-bulletproof windows near the roof. They fired at the bus ferociously, up to 150 times, at such close range that bullets finally penetrated the armor and hit the passengers trapped inside, police said.

"All the wounded were inside, and they were shouting, `Save us, save us,' " said Yitzak Kaufman, one of the first paramedics to arrive at the scene, a twisting, narrow road outside the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Emmanuel in the northern West Bank. "They were full of blood."

The three gunmen escaped through the rugged hills despite a large-scale search that included army vehicles and Apache helicopters that flew low and fired bursts of gunfire into the thickets and olive groves ahead of advancing soldiers.

Several groups, including the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, claimed responsibility for the attack. Three of the dead were from the same family. The injured included two 12-year-old girls, an infant and a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. Both the mother and the baby, who was delivered by Caesarian section, were in critical condition.

The well-planned attack by gunmen disguised as Israeli soldiers was the first deadly assault on Israeli civilians since June 20 and came amid a prolonged Israeli army occupation of eight West Bank cities and a strict curfew on more than 700,000 Palestinians.

Israeli officials canceled a high-level meeting with Palestinian Authority leaders that had been scheduled for today that was designed to find ways to ease the conditions of Palestinians who are prevented from leaving their homes to go to work, school or stores.

The renewed violence also came hours before representatives from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations met in New York to discuss how to end 21 months of fighting that has killed at least 1,758 Palestinians and 572 Israelis.

The last wave of attacks was in mid-June, when two suicide bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 people, and a gunman infiltrated the northern West Bank settlement of Itamar and killed five more, sparking retaliation by settlers and a renewed offensive by the Israeli army called Operation Determined Path.

Soldiers took over all but one Palestinian city on the West Bank and vowed to continue the occupation until violence stops, militant groups are disbanded and the Palestinian Authority sidelines Yasser Arafat and chooses a new leader.

Palestinian officials have begun what they call significant reforms but are vowing to fight any move by outsiders, including the United States, to relegate Arafat to a figurehead position and dictate who should govern.

Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the attack "in accordance with its policies that reject targeting civilians, Israelis or Palestinians."

But officials said the Palestinian police are powerless to stop the attacks because they are not in charge of the cities. Saeb Erekat, Palestinian chief negotiator and cabinet minister, put the blame on Israel because of its occupation of West Bank cities.

Israel disagreed. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli army chief of staff, told a parliament foreign affairs committee yesterday that the "current Palestinian leadership made the strategic decision to embark on a course of violence and is trying, despite everything that has happened, to wave both the terror and the diplomatic flags."

David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, attributed the recent respite from violence to the army presence in the territories, not from any measures taken by Palestinian police. "Palestinian terrorists continue to try to arrange as many attacks as they possibly can," he said. "We prevent most of them."

Yesterday afternoon's attack was almost identical to one on the same bus line Dec. 12, also near the gated entrance to Emmanuel, in which 10 people were killed. In that case, the bus was not bulletproof, and survivors complained about the shortcoming.

Emmanuel is a small settlement of a few thousand people founded in 1983 on a hilltop between the Palestinian cities of Qalqilya and Nablus, both considered militant strongholds by the Israeli army. The road leading to the settlement is narrow and winds through rugged and dangerous terrain.

The bus, chartered from a company that specializes in running risky routes, left from Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, at 2:30 p.m. It arrived outside Emmanuel about 3 p.m. As it approached the settlement gates on a small hill, a bomb exploded beside the road.

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