MEGIDDO JUNCTION, Israel, Reuters
A Palestinian suicide attacker exploded a powerful car bomb next to an Israeli bus on Wednesday, igniting an inferno and killing at least 16 people in a major setback to international peace efforts.
Hours after the bombing on the 35th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, Israeli tanks rolled into Jenin, a West Bank city regarded by Israel as a militant stronghold. No casualties were reported in what the Israeli army said was a routine patrol.
The blast in northern Israel claimed the highest number of Israeli deaths of any attack since the end early last month of a crushing six-week military offensive through the West Bank, launched in response to a wave of suicide bombings.
“I saw a vehicle just in front of us. Then I heard the explosion and everything was fire and smoke,” said Anton Borodnik, a soldier who had been travelling on the bus packed with troops and civilians.
The militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said it carried out the bombing near Megiddo, the Hebrew name for Armageddon.
“A seeker of martyrdom…from the Jerusalem Brigades detonated an explosives-laden car that he drove near a Zionist bus near Megiddo junction,” the group said in a statement.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing and rejected Israel’s charge that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was responsible for the attack.
U.S. President George W. Bush condemned “the terror attack…in the strongest terms,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
The bloodshed followed two days of talks between U.S. CIA Director George Tenet and Palestinian and Israeli leaders intended to initiate Palestinian Authority reforms to help stop suicide attacks.
“This attack underscores the fact that these terrorists are the worst enemies, not only of the people of Israel who seek peace, but also of the Palestinian people and their hopes for a better life,” Fleischer said.
The car blew up during the morning rush hour as the bus was travelling from Tel Aviv to Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee.
In a speech broadcast to a Cairo ceremony marking the anniversary of the war, Arafat said peace remained the strategic choice of the Palestinians and the Arab nation.
“But the Israeli government answered our efforts, the efforts of our Arab nation and those of peace lovers by launching…wild military escalations against our people and against the Palestinian Authority,” he said, according to the official Palestinian WAFA news agency.
A chunk of mangled metal was all that remained of the car and the bus. The explosion sprayed body parts and debris for hundreds of meters across a main highway.
A correspondent for Israel’s Army Radio described a couple locked in a death embrace, their charred bodies hanging from one of the bus’s rear windows.
Police said at least 16 people were killed in the blast, a few kilometres (miles) from the West Bank.