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14 Killed in Israeli Bus Attack

More than 55 people are injured when a vehicle explodes, creating a wall of flames. The suicide assault is the deadliest in four months.

October 22, 2002|LAURA KING | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An SUV packed with high explosives pulled up to a crowded bus in northern Israel on Monday and blew up, triggering a raging inferno that killed at least 14 people aboard and injured more than 55, police and witnesses said.

The attack, the deadliest inside Israel in four months, raised the prospect of Israeli retaliation at a time when the United States has dispatched an envoy to the region to try to calm tensions. The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, in telephone calls to Palestinian journalists, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Bus No. 841, operated by the bus company Egged and packed with passengers as the early evening rush hour got underway, had just stopped at an intersection outside the coastal town of Hadera when the explosion sent mangled metal flying for more than 100 yards along the roadway, eyewitnesses said.

"Wounded people flew out of the bus, and the bus was in flames," Haim Cohen, who lives nearby and had just arrived home from work, told Israel Radio.

Authorities said later that they believed the vehicle used in the attack, described as a KIA 4x4, had contained more than 200 pounds of explosives.

Arriving paramedics and soldiers were driven back by the intense blaze, unable to help those trapped in the bus. It was reduced to a charred skeleton, all its windows blown out and its frame bent and scorched.

"We wanted to save more people, but the entire bus was one huge flame," said passenger Michael Yitzhaki, who suffered minor injuries. Ammunition carried by soldiers aboard exploded, as did the fuel tank.

"The bullets whistled and everything blew up," Yitzhaki said.

Scores of injured, some with grievous burns and shrapnel wounds, were being treated at nearby hospitals. Five of those hurt were in critical condition, hospital officials said, including a 2-year-old girl.

A fifteenth body found in the wreckage was believed to be one of two suicide bombers, officials said, but the condition of the corpses made it difficult to be certain of anyone's identity. Police were searching for a second vehicle they believed had accompanied that of the assailant.

Monday's bombing came despite heavy security along the road on which the bus was traveling, a corridor close to the northern West Bank that has been the scene of frequent attacks, including one similar to this one. On June 5, a car detonated alongside a bus near Megiddo -- the biblical Armageddon, about 15 miles northeast of Hadera -- killing 17 people.

As darkness fell Monday, the flashing blue lights of emergency vehicles illuminated the scene, and hundreds of paramedics, police and soldiers scoured thin roadside foliage.

The attack was the first deadly bombing in Israel since Oct. 10, when a 71-year-old woman was killed by a suicide bomber near Tel Aviv. But security officials say they have been foiling frequent efforts by Palestinian militants to make their way to targets inside Israel.

"We have said that the calm was only imaginary, and to my regret we were not proven wrong," said Yaakov Borovsky, the police chief of Israel's northern district. "The potential of terrorist attacks and the motivation of the terrorist organizations are high."

Radical groups redoubled their threats last week after six Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

After the attack on the bus, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon immediately held security consultations by telephone with members of his government, and Israeli officials expressed outrage over the bombing.

A top U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, is due in Israel later this week for talks, but a senior aide to Sharon said the continuing violence has left little hope for progress.

"Every time there's an American envoy coming here with some proposal ... the Palestinians time and again embark on the road that leads to more bloodshed, more violence and more terrorism," said Sharon advisor Raanan Gissin. "That's the road that they're on."

The Sharon government has made it clear that it considers Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a prime architect of terror against Israel, and it refuses to have any dealings with him. However, the Palestinian leader condemned the bombing.

"The Palestinian leadership is opposed to attacks against Palestinian and Israeli civilians," he told journalists outside his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, according to the Reuters news agency. "We reject such attacks against civilians."

Israel was almost certain to respond militarily to an attack of this magnitude. The country's Channel One television, citing military sources, said Sharon and his defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, were weighing a "pinpoint" reaction rather than a widespread one. Israel already has a tight grip on almost all the West Bank's major cities.

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