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16 Israelis Die in Dual Suicide Bus Bombings

Hamas militants claim responsibility for the attacks in the south, which injure nearly 100. Sharon vows to keep up 'fight against terror.'

September 01, 2004|Laura King and Tami Zer | Special to The Times

BEERSHEBA, Israel — Shattering a nearly six-month lull in suicide bombings by Palestinian militants, two attackers blew themselves up Tuesday less than a minute apart aboard a pair of crowded buses in the southern desert city of Beersheba. At least 16 passengers were killed and nearly 100 were injured by the blasts, which scattered charred metal, glass shards and body parts across a palm-lined boulevard.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his top advisors to weigh a response to the blasts, which came only hours after the Israeli leader told lawmakers in his restive Likud Party that he was determined to press ahead with an initiative to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

"The fight against terror will continue with full strength," Sharon said as he headed into closed-door talks with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and other senior security officials after the bombings.

Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge Israel's assassination of the group's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, more than five months ago and the killings of many of Hamas' other founding leaders.

"If Sharon and Mofaz think all of this will stop, they are living in a dream," Hamas said in a statement faxed to Western news organizations. "This is but one of a series of retaliations."

The attacks came just before 3 p.m., as shoppers were heading home from the main marketplace in Beersheba, a Negev desert city about 60 miles south of Tel Aviv that serves as a commercial hub for southern Israel.

Rescue workers, clutching stretchers to ferry the wounded, staggered through plumes of smoke, drenched by mist from fire hoses spraying the flames. Footage repeatedly broadcast on Israeli television showed rescuers freeing the limp, scorched body of a young woman from a twisted bus frame, her long black hair falling across her face.

The street was strewn with passengers' purchases -- tomatoes and peppers, boxes of crackers, loaves of bread.

"I was driving Bus No. 12, and I could see Bus No. 6 to my left," said driver Yaakov Cohen, clad in a hospital gown and still spattered with blood. "Suddenly there was a huge boom from that bus. I drove about 10 yards to try to escape and opened the doors for my passengers, and then there was a boom on my own bus, a huge one."

Those out in the streets Tuesday included mothers and children shopping for school supplies for the start of classes today. A 3-year-old boy was reported to be among the dead, and more than a dozen children were injured.

Beersheba, a drab industrial city, has for decades been a prime settling-in spot for immigrants, and among the wounded were some new arrivals who cried out in panic, unable to communicate in Hebrew with rescue workers.

National Police Chief Moshe Karadi said that there had been no specific intelligence warnings of an attack in Beersheba but that security forces had been fielding dozens of alerts every day.

In an apparently unrelated incident, a would-be bomber was caught hours earlier at the Erez crossing from the Gaza Strip into Israel, where Palestinian workers often are forced to partially disrobe to show that they are not carrying explosives. The man was wearing a bomb belt made to resemble underwear, the Israeli army said.

It was the first suicide bombing in Israel since March 14, when two blasts shook the Mediterranean harbor of Ashdod, killing 10 port workers. Sharon's government credits the drop-off in attacks to the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, for which it has drawn heavy international criticism.

The part of the barrier that will lie closest to Beersheba, the stretch that will separate the southern West Bank from Israel, has not yet been built, and Israeli officials said they believed it was no coincidence that the city was targeted.

"So this is an area where work on the fence hasn't started -- and this is an area where the attacks occurred," said Israeli lawmaker Gideon Ezra. "We are at war, and we should remember this."

Israeli authorities said the attack originated in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, about 30 miles northeast of Beersheba, which has been the base for a particularly deadly Hamas cell. Israeli troops moved into Hebron late Tuesday, surrounding homes where they believed the bombers lived. Authorities placed Hebron under a curfew.

More than a dozen of the Hebron cell's members have been killed or arrested during the last 18 months, but the group -- drawn largely from members of the same extended family -- has been active as recently as this summer, when it planned, but did not manage to carry out, an attack on a Jerusalem cafe, Israeli security officials say.

A leaflet signed by Hamas and circulated in Hebron made a chilling reference to Beersheba's large immigrant population.

"This is a gift to the newcomers in our land," it said. "We say to you, 'This is your fate, so wait.' "

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