TERROR BUS ATTACK CLAIMS 16 DEAD
The rush hour assault
become even more shocking as authorities from the scene reported that
many of the terror victims were trapped inside the bus and were burned
The explosion unleashed intense flames that sent huge plumes of smoke into the sky and initially prevented police and rescue workers from approaching the bus. When the fire was extinguished an hour later, the bus and the car were reduced to blackened skeletons. A huge fireball was created as the intial blast ignited the fuel tank, and in the resulting blaze two nearby cars were also destroyed.
"The explosion was so strong that I fell to the floor," Michael Itzhaki, a passenger who was sitting behind the bus driver, told Army Radio. "I looked back and quickly got off the bus, then it burst into flames." "We succeeded in getting one soldier off the bus," Itzhaki said. "Two minutes after that, more explosions started ... and we couldn't get on the bus because it was on fire. Some of the soldiers climbed out the windows and survived."
The majority of those who were badly wounded were passengers in the rear of the bus. Some were unable to be extricated from the wreckage, while others, including passengers and motorists, were thrown meters in the air by the force of the blast.
Islamic Jihad later claimed responsibility for the attack, which is believed to have been planned by bomb expert Iyad Sawalha, 30, a former Fatah member who lives in the Jenin area. In a letter faxed to the Associated Press in Beirut, the organization said the attack was in "retaliation for the series of massacres committed by the criminal enemy against our people."
Israeli officials noted that the fact that the terrorist drove a jeep points to the possibility he drove on dirt roads and rough terrain to avoid detection. Islamic Jihad has used similar tactics, including in the suicide bombing at the Megiddo junction in June, and almost two months ago when security forces thwarted an attempt to infiltrate a jeep laden with 600 kilograms of explosives across the Green Line.
The Shin Bet noted that in the last two weeks, 49 warnings of specific warnings of terror attacks had been received. Five attacks were thwarted, 25 terrorists were arrested, and two potential suicide bombers were killed.
Within minutes of the blast, security forces and rescue teams were tending the wounded, while firefighters extinguished the flames. Border policemen immediately set up roadblocks on roads leading to Haifa, Hadera, and Afula, and security forces beefed up their presence along the Green Line after police received reports from eyewitnesses that a second vehicle containing three people who apparently accompanied the suicide bomber was spotted fleeing the area.
Ambulances took the majority of the wounded to Hillel Yaffe Hospital in Hadera, while five were admitted to Ha'emek Hospital in Afula. Among the five seriously wounded are a two-year-old girl suffering from a torn liver and her four-year-old brother who were traveling in a car with their mother.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer returned to their offices to assess the situation and the response. The two met with top security officials Monday night and decided on a limited response.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said the IDF will take action to prevent further attacks, based on warnings it receives on an ongoing basis.
"Those who committed the crime will not be exonerated, they will pay the price, but at the right time and place," a senior diplomatic source said. "Islamic Jihad, which is based in Damascus, will not be left alone. We will catch them and bring them to justice or justice will be brought to them."
The Prime Minister's Office denied there is American pressure not to respond, saying the Americans understand the need to respond to terrorism.
At the same time, US President George W. Bush asked Sharon not to take action that could get in the way of the impending American attack on Iraq. The presence of US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns in the region also makes a major response to the attack unlikely.
Close to 4:23 p.m., Egged bus No. 841, which left Kiryat Shmona shortly before 2 heading for Tel Aviv, stopped near the junction to allow passengers to board. Driver Haim Avraham, who was lightly wounded, said a passenger heading for Hadera had begun to board when the explosion occurred.
"The blast threw me out of my seat. I assisted a girl off the bus, but I couldn't help any more. The bus burst into flames," he said.
Egged spokesman Ron Ratner said a security guard was on the bus between Afula and Hadera, and a company security vehicle was meters away when the blast occurred. Rescue teams said ammunition belonging to soldiers on the bus exploded as it was engulfed in flames, preventing workers from extricating those inside.
Northern District police chief Cmdr. Ya'akov Borovsky said there had been no specific warnings of terrorist attacks in the area. "We believe the terrorists randomly chose the bus and drove up alongside it and detonated the explosives," he said. "The terrorists were accompanied by a second vehicle 'the dispatchers.' We believe the suicide bombers came from the Jenin area."
Borovsky said that police had beefed up their presence on Route 65 in recent weeks.
Half an hour after the attack, Assaf Karp sat on a crash barrier at the side of the road contemplating his own close call. "Peoples' lives ended in seconds in front of our eyes and there was nothing we could do," he said. "I could have died myself so easily, but escaped only with damage to my car. During my military service, I witnessed plenty of explosions, but nothing prepared me for this.
"I was driving five meters in front of the bus when I heard the explosion. It didn't sound so horrible at first, because the back of the bus was hit, even though I felt the shock wave. The bus ground to a halt at an angle to the road and people started emerging from the open front door but no one left via the back door as all the passengers in the rear end of the bus were wounded.
"Everyone in the vicinity started running toward the bus to pull people out. I helped several passengers get out they were all in shock and hardly said a word.
"For what seemed about 10 minutes, there was a steady stream of small explosions as ammunition belonging to the soldiers exploded. I was scared that someone would be killed by exploding bullets.
"The bus started to burn slowly at first it took a couple of minutes until the flames spread to the fuel tank and then the whole bus exploded. At least two soldiers were inside, screaming for help. Another lay immobile with his legs hanging out of the bus his eyes were not moving and I think he was dead. But the heat was so powerful that we couldn't get close. There was nothing anyone could do."
The Israel Defense
Force's chief spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, did not say what the
likely response would be, but linked the attacks to the recent easing
of curfews in some West Bank towns. "We'll have to be very careful
now, there are probably more ticking bombs on the way," she said.