At least 16 die in Israel as Hamas strikes 2 buses

Arab militants retaliate for killings of 2 leaders


BEERSHEBA, Israel - Six months of relative quiet in Israel ended in carnage yesterday, as two suicide bombers blew up two buses 100 yards apart in this southern desert town, killing at least 16 people, including a 4-year-old child, and wounding more than 100.

Sixteen of the wounded were school-age children; 18 people remained hospitalized, three in critical condition and five in serious condition, Israeli hospital officials said, in the worst bombing in the country in nearly a year. The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a retaliation for the assassinations in Gaza months ago of two of its leaders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, its founder, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

After meeting with his security Cabinet last night, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged that Israel "will continue fighting terror with all its might" and said the bombings would have no effect on his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Some prominent politicians called for the speedy construction of the separation barrier between the Israelis and the Palestinians - which does not yet stretch to the area near Beersheba - despite an Israeli Supreme Court decision that the impact on Palestinian livelihood and land should be taken into account in determining its route.

In Beersheba, a city of 180,000 people 50 miles south of Tel Aviv, what for many was a trip to market on the day before the start of the school year concluded with families shattered and the main street strewn with glass, pencils, schoolbooks, groceries, bank cards, purses and body parts. A book in Russian lay on the pavement; a plastic bottle of laundry detergent, punctured by shrapnel, leached on the cloth covering one of the victims.

The two suicide bombers also died, the severed head of one sharing the bloody floor of a bus with human limbs, shreds of clothing and the stuff of ordinary life. Forensic experts and Orthodox Jewish medical workers who collect human remains for burial stepped carefully.

Both buses, the No. 6 and the No. 12, left the central bus station in this heavily immigrant city about 2:55 p.m., full of people who had been to the central market. When the No. 6, an older model, exploded, the driver of the No. 12, Yaacov Cohen, had the presence of mind to open his doors and tell people to get out.

"I opened the bus doors and people began to get off the bus. Then I heard a huge blast," Cohen told Israeli radio. "I couldn't believe it, it was amazing; I didn't realize it was on my bus. I looked at myself and saw I was all right, but when I looked back at the passengers I saw such painful sights."

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell condemned the attack.

In Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated in the streets, and the Associated Press reported that one of the bombers' widows hailed the attack as "heroic" and said her husband's soul was "happy in heaven."

In the nearby West Bank city of Hebron, which Israel believes was the launching point for the attack, Hamas put out a leaflet saying: "If you thought that the martyrdom of our leaders would weaken our missions and discourage us from jihad, then you are dreaming."

Swift retaliation was expected, and there were reports last night that Israeli forces have surrounded the house of the two suspected suicide bombers, whose names were said by Israeli radio to be Ahmed Qawasmeh and Nasim Muhammad Ali Jaabari.

Major attacks

During four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, 490 people have been killed in 114 Palestinian suicide bombings. Here's a look at some of the deadliest attacks:

March 14, 2004: Two bombers at Ashdod port, killing 10.

Feb. 22: A bus in downtown Jerusalem, killing seven.

Jan. 29: A bus on Jerusalem's Gaza Street, killing 11.

Oct. 4, 2003: A seaside restaurant in Haifa, killing at least 19.

Sept. 9, 2003: Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem, killing seven.

Sept. 9, 2003: A bus stop near an army base outside Tel Aviv, killing eight Israeli soldiers.

Aug. 19, 2003: A bus in Jerusalem, killing 23.

June 11, 2003: A bus on Jerusalem's central Jaffa Street, killing 17.

May 18, 2003: A bus in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood, killing seven.

March 5, 2003: A bus in Haifa, killing 17.

Jan. 5, 2003: Two bombers strike the Neve Shaanan pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv, killing 23.

Nov. 21, 2002: A bus in Jerusalem, killing 11.

Oct. 21, 2002: A bus at Karkur Junction, killing 14.

Aug. 4, 2002: A bus at Meron Junction, killing eight.

June 19, 2002: French Hill intersection in Jerusalem, killing seven.

June 18, 2002: Patt Junction in southern Jerusalem, killing 19.

June 5, 2002: Bus near Megiddo Junction, killing 17.

May 7, 2002: A pool hall in Rishon Letzion, killing 15.

April 10, 2002: A bus in Haifa, killing eight.

March 31, 2002: A restaurant in Haifa, killing 15.

March 27, 2002: A hotel dining room during a ritual Seder meal at the start of Passover in Netanya, killing 29.

March 20, 2002: A bus near Kfar Musmus, killing seven.

March 9, 2002: Jerusalem's Moment Cafe, killing 11.

March 2, 2002: Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, killing 11.

Dec. 2, 2001: A bus in Haifa, killing 15.

Dec. 1, 2001: Two bombers strike Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, killing 11.

Aug. 9, 2001: Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem, killing 15.

June 1, 2001: Entrance of the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv, killing 21, mostly teenagers.

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