3 Israelis killed, 18 wounded amid effort to halt bomber

Palestinian is restrained, but explosives detonate just after he is shot

October 28, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ARIEL, West Bank -- A desperate bid by Israeli civilians and soldiers to stop a Palestinian suicide bomber at a gas station failed yesterday when the explosives strapped to his waist blew up a split second after a bystander shot him and others tried to hold his arms.

Three army reservists and the bomber were killed, and at least 18 people were wounded in the powerful blast at the entrance to this large Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank, about 40 miles north of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the bomber as Mohammed Bustami, 22, a university student in Nablus.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, initially had claimed responsibility, but later said the attacker was not a member.

Police said they did not know whether the bomber had managed to detonate the explosives after he was shot or if a bullet fired by those trying to stop him triggered the blast.

Witnesses said they were alerted about 11:30 a.m. when a woman screamed "terrorist" and "bomber." They said the owner of the gas station, Menachem Gilboa, approached the man from behind and wrapped his arms around him.

Three army reservists rushed from a nearby cafeteria and grabbed the bomber's arms.

Shahar Keshet, a college student who had stopped for gas, approached with his pistol and said he heard the Palestinian yell, "I am not a terrorist."

"He didn't know if he should blow himself up or not," said Keshet, his face peppered with cuts from screws and bits of metal packed into the bomb. Keshet's girlfriend, Efrat Amitai, sat next to him at Beilinson Hospital in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikvah, stroking his hair.

The reservists "were in shock," Keshet said. "They didn't know what to do. One soldier asked if he should shoot and someone said no."

Witnesses said some began to beat the man while others shouted "Kill him" or "Don't kill him," apparently debating how to safely subdue the bomber.

"The minute I saw the [explosive] belt, I shot," Keshet said. "I shot him two or three times. I saw him fall with a wound to his head."

Keshet said the bomb went off a split second later, killing the reserve soldiers who were closest and spreading carnage over a wide area.

One body fell near the gas pumps; two others were 30 feet away behind a row of parked cars. Rescue workers used a cherry-picker to retrieve body parts that landed atop a transformer attached to a tower 40 feet above the ground.

Yesterday's attack was the second suicide bombing in six days after several weeks of relative quiet. On Oct. 21, two Palestinians in a sport utility vehicle packed with explosives rammed a bus in northern Israel, killing themselves and 14 passengers.

In response, the Israeli army sent troops back into the Palestinian city of Jenin in the northern West Bank to hunt for suspected militants. Israeli troops have occupied Nablus since June to prevent suicide attacks and held its 200,000 residents under a strict curfew that is rarely lifted.

Hours after yesterday's bombing, three members of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were killed in Nablus during an exchange of fire with Israeli undercover troops who tried to arrest them. Two soldiers were wounded. In Jenin, a 15-year-old Palestinian youth was reportedly killed by army gunfire.

Meanwhile, Jewish settlers near Ariel used rifle butts and stones to attack foreigners guarding Palestinians harvesting olives in the West Bank village of Yanun, near Nablus.

Two Americans were among the injured, said the International Solidarity Movement. James Deleplain, 74, was hit in the face, back and ribs, and Mary Hughes-Thompson, 68, was struck on the arms.

Police were on high alert in northern Israel, amid reports that another suicide bomber had infiltrated from the West Bank town of Tulkarm.

The bombing at Ariel -- one of the largest Jewish settlements, with about 20,000 residents -- coincides with a parliamentary dispute over budgets for settlements that has turned into one of the most divisive issues that Israel's coalition government has faced in two years.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, head of the liberal Labor Party, wants $145 million of the money earmarked for settlements next year to be diverted to impoverished cities in Israel. He faces a tough re-election race for party leader and is distancing himself from the Likud government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Ben-Eliezer has threatened to leave the coalition if his demands are not met, which could collapse the government and force early elections. Sharon has threatened to fire any Cabinet minister who does not support his budget.

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