Car bomb kills at least 16 in northern Israel

Palestinian militants ram vehicle into bus, setting off explosions

October 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - At least 16 people were killed yesterday afternoon in northern Israel when Palestinian militants rammed a vehicle packed with explosives into a bus, which exploded in a fireball and trapped helpless passengers in an inferno.

The exact number of casualties was unclear last night. Israeli police said that in addition to the dead Israelis, one or two Palestinians were in the sport utility vehicle and died in what appeared to be a suicide attack. More than 50 people were injured.

Ammunition carried by more than a dozen soldiers who were passengers exploded and flew through the bus, adding to the carnage and frightening many who thought someone was shooting at them even as they struggled to escape.

The bombing threatened yet another American-led peace initiative and efforts by Palestinian moderates to reform their government and end the violence that has engulfed the region for more than two years.

The Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack in a message on Hezbollah's al-Manar television station in Beirut. Israeli police said the bomb weighed 220 pounds, powerful enough to destroy an army tank.

Witnesses reported two explosions - one from the initial blast and another when the fuel tank on the bus blew apart. People rushed to help, but were forced back from the heat and flames that nearly incinerated the bus and rendered it a skeleton of twisted metal.

The blast was so powerful that several cars driving nearby were flattened. The only recognizable piece from the car containing the bomb was the engine, which landed 300 feet from the bus. Rescue workers were pulling bodies from the wreckage for more than three hours.

Michael Yitzhaki was sitting behind the driver reading a book and managed to get out with only minor injures. He saw one passenger crawl out through a window and another squeeze through a hole in the floor, where the engine had been.

"The others burned in the bus," he said, as survivors walked around in a daze, their skin blackened and charred. "I heard soldiers screaming. The bus caught fire immediately and with surprising speed. Everything filled with smoke. It was difficult to watch people we couldn't help."

The bombing occurred at Karkur Junction, which is on a road that links northern towns to coastal cities. More than a dozen attacks have occurred along this stretch of highway in the past two years, mainly because of its proximity to the West Bank.

Officials said the bus had left the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona and was headed to Tel Aviv, a 3 1/2 -hour trip, when it was rammed about an hour from its destination. About 45 people were on board.

The bomb detonated moments after the bus had pulled over to pick up a passenger at a stop. "He climbed two steps and then there was an explosion," said the driver, Haim Avraham, who was slightly wounded.

Militant groups have traditionally sent bombers wearing explosive belts or vests onto crowded buses but using a car bomb is not without precedent. In June, an attack similar to yesterday's was carried out at the Megiddo Junction, also in Israel's north, killing 17 people.

Yesterday's bombing was the deadliest since June 18, when 19 people were killed in a suicide blast aboard a bus in Jerusalem, prompting the Israeli army to storm several Palestinian cities on the West Bank - most of which remain occupied.

The last few weeks have been relatively quiet, despite several close calls. Suicide bombers were thwarted twice early this month - once by an alert security guard at a cafe near the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and again when an attacker slipped as he tried to board a bus.

It was unclear last night how the Israeli army would respond to yesterday's attack. The U.S. is urging restraint from all sides to avoid complicating its talk of war against Iraq, and has made it clear to Israel that it must refrain from reprisals that would harm Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or cause heavy civilian casualties.

In its statement, the Islamic Jihad said it carried out the attack to avenge the deaths of more than 30 Palestinian civilians during Israeli army raids in the Gaza Strip this month. Yesterday also was the seventh anniversary of the death of one of the group's leaders, Fathi Shikaki, in Malta - a killing the organization has blamed on an Israeli assassination.

During the past week, Israel has lifted some restrictions imposed on Palestinian cities by easing checkpoints to make travel easier, pulling some troops out of Jenin and promising to withdraw from Hebron. The army asserts that the car and explosives used yesterday came from Jenin, an Islamic Jihad stronghold.

Also, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns is touring the region to help calm the Middle East crisis and promote Washington's newest peace proposal. It calls for the Palestinians to reform their government and end violence, followed by a regional peace summit and the recognition of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

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