Explosion rips through bus, killing at least 15 in Israel

American among victims

lull in suicide attacks ends

March 06, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - A Palestinian suicide bomber detonated a bomb yesterday aboard a crowded bus in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 40 others in an explosion that reduced the bus to a roofless tangle of metal and broken glass.

The force of the blast lifted the bus into the air, felled palm trees and broke windows in nearby homes. With medics slowed by a crush of traffic, witnesses rushed to help people trapped in the smoldering ruins and lying on the pavement. It was the first suicide attack in Israel in two months.

"There were men and women on the ground, some turned over and crumpled up," said Linda Falcovitz, who had just walked out of a restaurant on Haifa's main boulevard when she saw and heard the explosion up the block.

Falcovitz knelt beside one man and pressed a rag to his neck wound. "Everybody looked stunned and some were unconscious," she said.

Police said this morning that as many as 10 of the dead were high school students. One of the victims was a 14-year-old American, identified by the Jerusalem Post as Abigail Leitner.

Police said they found in the wreckage a Palestinian identification card of a man from the West Bank city of Hebron, and a two-page document in Arabic praising the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.

The first page was a printed declaration that has widely circulated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, claiming that the Quran foretells the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

A handwritten second page contained 12 lines that praised God and, in its language, resembled a typical note left by suicide bombers.

Israeli authorities detained the father and two brothers of the Palestinian whose identification card was found, and more than a dozen tanks were seen moving into the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

Hospital officials and witnesses told the Associated Press that 11 people were killed when Israeli troops fired two tank shells in a group of Palestinians watching firefighters in the camp. Earlier, a Palestinian was reported killed by a missile strike there, and two Palestinians died in clashes.

No group had claimed responsibility for the bus attack as of early this morning. It was the first suicide attack since two men blew themselves up in Tel Aviv on Jan. 5, killing 23 bystanders.

Many Haifa University students were aboard the bus, which was slowing to stop as it headed to the hilltop campus.

The attack occurred amid an Israeli army offensive against the radical group Hamas that has claimed nearly 50 lives in recent weeks and as Palestinian leaders debate a series of government reforms requested by the United States and Europe to weaken leader Yasser Arafat and end the armed uprising.

It also represents the first security test for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new hard-line government, whose members were sworn in this week. Several officials have openly pushed for expelling Arafat.

Israeli government officials held Arafat and his Palestinian Authority responsible for the explosion, calling it an example of Arafat's failed leadership and inability or unwillingness to rein in militant groups.

"This is the continuation of the bloody trail of terror that the Palestinians continue to foster," said government spokesman David Baker. "They haven't let up one bit in their determination to kill as many Israelis as possible. Today's attack is proof of that."

Baker called the two-month lull in suicide bombings deceptive, saying the army and police have thwarted more than 50 planned attacks by various Palestinian groups in the past month. He credited the army's reoccupation of nearly all Palestinian cities in the West Bank with preventing additional attacks.

Palestinian leaders quickly condemned the bombing, but said it was Israel's military pressure and frequent raids to arrest suspected militants that have prevented Arafat's repeated pleas for a cease-fire from taking hold.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a statement that the Israeli army has killed more than 150 Palestinians since the last suicide bombing in January. The bus attack "will only divert attention" from the Palestinian casualties incurred in recent weeks and could undermine reform efforts, he said.

Yesterday's explosion occurred shortly before 2:30 p.m. in the hilltop neighborhood of Carmelia in Haifa, about 60 miles north of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast.

The bus had started its route at the central bus station and was climbing toward Haifa University.

Police said they believe the bomber boarded the bus several stops before the explosion and was sitting or standing near the rear of the vehicle as it came to stop on Moriah Street, a neighborhood that includes houses as well as shops and cafes.

The explosion ripped apart the bus, damaged nearby cars and buildings and spread human remains and pieces of metal across a wide swath of the four-lane road. Shoes were scattered about the street.

Three security guards who were trailing the bus in cars as part of a new effort to thwart bombers said they noticed no one unusual getting on board. The bus driver, Marwan Damouni, told Israel Radio that he didn't find any of the passengers suspicious.

The explosion occurred near the home of Amram Mitzna, the former mayor of Haifa who is now the leader of the opposition Labor Party which supports resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, even as violence continues. He was not at home at the time.

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