Suicide bombers set off blasts in Haifa, Jerusalem, kill at least 25


Sunday, December 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


HAIFA, Israel (AP) _ A suicide bomber detonated nail-studded explosives on a bus in this port city Sunday, police said, killing himself and at least 14 people just hours after Islamic militants set off deadly explosions in downtown Jerusalem.

The wave of attacks _ including a shooting in Gaza _ killed at least 25 people besides the bombers and injured nearly 200 in only 12 hours. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to cut short his trip to the United States, moving a meeting with President Bush up to Sunday so he can leave return to Israel later in the day.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for all of the attacks, which occured as a U.S. envoy was in the region trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian truce.

Israeli officials blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to crack down on militants, and there was pressure on the government to react more harshly than in the past. One Cabinet minister said Arafat should be expelled from the region.

With Bush demanding Arafat arrest Islamic militants, the Palestinian leader called an emergency meeting of his leadership for later Sunday. His aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the meeting was to ``take a very serious and urgent decision,'' but did not elaborate.

The attack in Jerusalem occurred just before midnight Saturday, when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at a downtown pedestrian mall packed people. Ten people, many of them teens, were killed, along with the two suicide bombers, and more than 150 people wounded.

Around noon Sunday, the blast went off in Haifa, a Mediterranean port city to the north.

Police officials said the Haifa bomber got on a city bus, paid the fare of about $1.50 and within seconds detonated the explosives.

``The bus came down the hill ... and as it leveled out it blew up,'' witness Rachel Antebe, told Israel Radio. Another witness, Yaakov Vaknin, said he heard a loud blast. ``I saw people flying through the air. I heard people screaming,'' he said.

The front of the red-and-white bus was twisted and burned, its roof buckled upward and sides blown out. Police explosives experts searched the inside of the bus, climbing over mangled seats.

Police officials said at least 12 people were killed in the bus and two pedestrians were crushed to death by the bus when the driver lost control. Rescue service spokesman Avi Zohar said about 40 people were wounded.

Hamas and its sister group Islamic Jihad had vowed revenge against Israel's killing nine days ago of a top Hamas militant in the West Bank.

``The Palestinian people are adamant on continuation of resistance ... until the defeat of (Israeli) occupation, regardless of the price,'' Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a senior Hamas official, said.

U.S. peace envoy Anthony Zinni, who arrived last week in hopes of ending 14 months of violence, laid a wreath at the site of Saturday's attack in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda cafe district.

``This is the deepest evil that one can imagine, to attack young people, children,'' he said.

After the Jerusalem attack, Bush said Arafat and the Palestinian Authority ``must demonstrate through their actions, and not merely their words, their commitment to fight terror.''

Arafat must ``immediately find and arrest'' those responsible and act ``swiftly and decisively'' against groups backing terror, Bush said from Camp David, Md.

Israeli officials said they were tired of waiting for Arafat to crack down.

``Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority do not do anything about the fight against terrorism, and it's obvious that we will have to take this fight into our own hands,'' Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said.

Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said there was ``no question there will be a change in our policy.''

In a first step, Israeli further tightened its travel restrictions in the West Bank, barring cars with Palestinian license plates from driving on roads in areas under full or partial Israeli control. Troops also sealed all Palestinian-controlled towns, barring residents from leaving or entering.

Earlier Sunday, two Palestinians opened fire on Israeli cars in the Gaza Strip, killing one person and wounding five others before soldiers shot them dead. The Hamas militant group claimed responsibility.

In east Jerusalem, an Israel guard at a bank in the Arab section of Jerusalem shot and killed a Palestinian, police and Palestinian security officials said.

On Sunday morning, angry Israelis gathered at Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem, chanting ``Death to the Arabs'' and calling on their government to move against Arafat.

Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for expelling Arafat and sending Israeli troops into Palestinian-controlled territory.

The victims in the Jerusalem attack ranged in age from 14 to 20, said police, who released their names Sunday.

The bombs went off around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, an hour when the Ben Yehuda mall is usually crowded with young people strolling and sitting at sidewalk cafes. The two bombers were standing about 30 yards from each other, police said.

Witness Eli Shetreet said he saw bodies being hurled in the air. ``A lot of people were crying, falling, and there was the smell of burning hair,'' said Shetreet, 19.

The blasts shattered the windows of cars parked a block away. Blood was splattered across store fronts, and bits of flesh and metal bolts from the explosives were strewn on the ground. Shortly after the suicide bombings, an explosion went off in a car parked near the mall, causing no injuries.

Palestinian security officials said the two Jerusalem bombers came from Abu Dis, a village near Jerusalem. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one was close to the militant Hamas, and the other recently resigned from a Palestinian security service.

The Palestinian officials said Israeli security arrested nine relatives of the two in Abu Dis early Sunday. The Israeli government had no comment.

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority condemned the terror attacks, expressing its ``deep anger ... and pain'' and accusing those behind it of trying to derail a U.S. peace initiative.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said that ``finger pointing and assigning blame is wrong. We're telling the Israeli government to come back to the negotiating table. As long as we live next to each other we need to make peace with each other.''

The Ben Yehuda mall has been the target of suicide attacks in the past, including one in 1997. Just up the block, on the corner of King George and Jaffa streets, a suicide bomber blew himself up last summer in a crowded pizzeria, killing himself and 15 diners.