Suicide blast kills 15 on bus in Haifa
BEN LYNFIELD IN JERUSALEM AND FOREIGN STAFF
A SUICIDE bomber blew himself up aboard a crowded bus in the northern Israeli city of Haifa yesterday, killing at least 15 people, injuring dozens and ending a two-month lull in suicide bombings.
The powerful blast ripped off the roof of the No 37 bus, strewing wreckage and body parts across the street and knocking down palm trees.
The bus was jammed with Haifa University students making their way home after classes. Police said the bomber rode the bus for two stops, then set off his explosive belt in the hilltop neighbourhood of Carmelia at 2:17pm, in an area packed with shops and restaurants.
In apparent response to the bombing, Israeli helicopters fired three missiles early today at a target in Jabaliya, next to Gaza City, and about 50 tanks moved towards the town and the refugee camp next to it.
A night watchman was killed and three other Palestinians were wounded in an exchange of fire, hospital officials said.
In Haifa, ten people died at the scene and five others at hospitals, where surgeons removed shrapnel from the bodies of the wounded, including large ball bearings apparently packed into the bomb for more lethal effect.
"I asked for a fire extinguisher to extinguish the burned people," a man who rushed to the remains of the bus said.
The driver, Marwan Damouni, told Army Radio the bus exploded as he stopped at a station and opened the doors to let passengers off.
"I suddenly heard an explosion," said Mr Damouni, who was being treated at Carmel Hospital. "I opened my eyes and saw the entire bus destroyed, blood all over the floor.
"I tried to move, to see if there were wounded ... I couldn’t hear anything because of the force of the blast."
Medics administered first aid to some 40 people wounded at the scene. Shaul Lynn, a physician, saw the bus smoking from his clinic window. "It was not a pretty site. We tried to see who we could save and who we couldn’t. We separated the lightly wounded and tried to keep the others alive."
Ovadia Saar, the driver of a bus coming in the opposite direction, told Israel’s YNET news service: "I was waiting at the intersection when suddenly the bus across from me exploded … I got out and ran towards the bus and saw a horrific site. There were corpses inside. We took the wounded out with our hands."
He switched off the bus’s still-running engine even as he worried about a possible second bomb. "I was worried the engine would endanger people, so I shut it off," he said.
No immediate claim of responsibility for the blast was made yesterday, which came as Israel’s new hard-line government presses ahead with a two-week offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza.
The European Union condemned the attack yesterday, as did George Bush, the US president. "The president condemns in the strongest terms today’s attack on innocents in Israel," the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said. "His message to terrorists is that their efforts will not be successful."
Mark Sofer, a foreign ministry spokesman, said: "Once again the bestial hand of Palestinian terrorism has struck at the heart of Israel."
The bombing was the first suicide attack by Palestinian militants since early January, when 23 people were killed in back-to-back bombings by Palestinian bombers in Tel Aviv.
The blast might been a reaction to the widening war against Hamas, in which Israel has moved against the political and spiritual leadership of the Islamic militant movement - as opposed to its armed wing - for the first time. Alternatively, it could be that finally one bomber slipped through the net.
"We’ve had over 50 warnings of terror attacks this week alone," said Gil Kleiman, a police spokesman. "We had two months of what everyone thought was quiet … but during that time, dozens of suicide bombers were caught by security forces on their way to carrying out attacks."
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister, yesterday condemned "any attack that is targeting civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli". But he added: "We reject the Israel government finger-pointing that the Palestinian Authority is responsible."
Moriah Street, where the blast occurred, is a main route connecting a hotel promenade that overlooks the large Haifa bay and port with the university district. "I suddenly heard a huge explosion and all the lights in my beauty parlour broke," said Ronen Levy, a beautician.
The blast left the bus a skeleton of charred and twisted metal. The windows were shattered and the roof was twisted and left hanging over the front.
Israeli police went on alert throughout the country amid warnings of more attacks.
The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is set to appoint a new prime minister in coming days - a move demanded by the US and Israel as a way of sidelining the veteran Palestinian leader.
"We are facing a [Palestinian] leadership which at best is unwilling to act, and at worst is actually complicit in many of the terrorist activities that we see," Mr Sofer said.
"What we see is terror, slaughter of innocent children, people going about their daily lives."
The Palestinians say that Israel’s military strikes and travel restrictions have crippled their security forces and left them unable to rein in the militants.
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