Three Americans killed in explosion targeting U.S. diplomatic convoy in Gaza Strip

Wednesday, October 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip (AP) _ A remote-controlled bomb exploded under a U.S. diplomatic convoy Wednesday, ripping apart an armored van and killing three Americans in an unprecedented deadly attack on an official U.S. target.

The bombing, which also wounded an American, will likely intensify U.S. pressure on the Palestinian Authority to take action against militant groups. The U.S. Embassy advised U.S. citizens to leave the Gaza Strip after the attack.

If Palestinian militants were to blame, it could signal a dramatic change in strategy. While targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians for years, the main militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad not targeted U.S. officials _ apparently to avoid a harsh retribution from the Americans and the anger of Palestinian officials trying to work with Washington.

Both groups repeated their stance Wednesday that they don't attack Americans, and there was no claim of responsibility for the bombing.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the attack as an ``awful crime'' and said he ordered an investigation. The Palestinian prime minister called Secretary of State Colin Powell to express his condolence and promise swift action.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, said the FBI would send bomb experts to investigate. ``We were shocked by this latest terrorist outrage,'' Kurtzer told reporters. ``The United States government will investigate fully.''

A team of investigators who photographed the charred van was pelted with rocks by Palestinians and had to cut short the visit.

Kurtzer said the diplomats had been en route to Gaza City to interview Palestinian applicants for Fulbright scholarships. The three dead were security personnel contracted by the embassy, Kurtzer said.

Meanwhile, Israel announced orders to expel three Palestinian militants from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. The decision came after it issued similar orders a day earlier against 15 other Palestinians _ raising criticism from the Palestinians and human rights group.

Wednesday's bomb detonated around 10:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m. EDT) as the three-car convoy, escorted by Palestinian police, was heading south on Gaza's main road just after entering the Gaza Strip from Israel. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Brooke Summers said the blast came from a ``previously planted explosive device.''

After the first two cars _ including the police escort _ went by, the third car had just passed when the blast went off near a gas station, said Mohammed Radwan, a Palestinian taxi driver who was at the station at the time.

``The first two cars drove quickly and stopped far from the explosion. Palestinian security people jumped out of the car and rushed to the car that had blown up ... I saw two people covered with blood lying next to the car,'' he said.

The blast gouged a deep crater into the unpaved stretch of road. The attack tore the van in half and flipped it over, leaving the wreckage twisted with the tires up in the air. The pavement was stained with blood and littered with bits of flesh that were collected by Palestinian paramedics.

An AP reporter saw a gray wire with an on-off switch leading from the scene of the attack to a small concrete room at the side of the road. The blast was about a mile south of the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza.

Palestinian security sources said they had ruled out the major Palestinian factions and were focusing their investigation on some small groups that receive funding from abroad, possibly Iran.

The attack was the second to target U.S. officials in Gaza, according to the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer. The previous attack, on a bulletproof car in Gaza in June, did not cause any injuries, he said, providing no further details. In June, the U.S. government announced it had received ``credible reports'' of plans to kidnap U.S. citizens in Gaza.

Attacks on U.S. targets have taken place in other other Arab countries, including Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and now Iraq. In October last year, an American administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development was gunned down in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in an assassination thought linked to the al-Qaida network.

But in the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, there has been an unofficial policy of ``hands off'' the Americans, though 49 Americans, many with dual citizenship, have been caught in the crossfire in the past three years of fighting.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for the bulk of the attacks on Israelis in the past three years of fighting, reiterated Wednesday that they have no interest in taking aim at non-Israeli targets.

``The Palestinian resistance believes that its enemy is the one who has occupied its land, who has killed the people of this land,'' Sheikh Adnan Assfour, a Hamas leader from Nablus, said in a statement faxed to AP.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Nazzam said Wednesday after the attack that his group ``has no intention to extend a cycle of confrontation with any nation ... except the occupation. Our battle is with the occupiers only.''

``In the land of Palestine, it's not proper to target Americans nor any other nations,'' he said.

But resentment against the United States has been growing steadily, with many Palestinians complaining that Washington sides with Israel.

U.S. convoys of armored black and silver Chevrolet Suburbans travel in Gaza almost daily and usually take the same route on the main north-south road in the strip. The convoys are easily identifiable: They are escorted by Palestinian police and have diplomatic plates. The color and make of the vehicles are unique to U.S. officials.

Later Wednesday, the U.S. government issued a travel advisory, recommending that ``all U.S. citizens depart the area as expeditiously as possible.'' Kurtzer said between 200 to 400 Americans, some of them of Palestinian descent, work in the Gaza Strip, many for aid groups.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia denounced the attack. ``We strongly condemn this incident and we will conduct an investigation and we will follow it to find the source of this attack,'' he told reporters in the West Bank.

Israeli officials said the attack underscored the need to dismantle Palestinian militant groups _ a requirement of the stalled, U.S.-backed ``road map'' peace plan that Palestinian leaders have refused to carry out.

``What happened is evidence that no one is immune, unfortunately, to Palestinian terrorism,'' said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.