Bus stop bombers kill 19 in Israel

Two Palestinian suicide bombers yesterday killed 19 people, mostly Israeli soldiers, and wounded 62 as they waited for buses on the main Israeli north-south highway at Beit Lid in central Israel. The bombs exploded within minutes of each other out side asnack-bar crowded with paratroopers leaving or rejoining their units.

The attack, the worst since a bomb killed 22 people in a bus in Tel Aviv last October, will badly damage the already faltering talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Last night the Israeli cabinet said the talks would continue but sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip and postponed the release of some 5,500 Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli President, Ezer Weizman, in a challenge to the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said earlier: "I believe we should suspend the talks -not stop them but suspend them."

The militant Islamic Jihad said the Beit Lid bombing was carried out by two of its members, Anwar Mohammad Attiyeh Sukkar, 23, and Salah Abdel Hamid Shaker Mohammad, 25, both from Gaza, nominally under the control of the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat. Mr Weizman says the Israel-PLO talks should be suspended until Mr Arafat makes a bigger effort to stop such attacks.

The bombers struck close to a major crossroads east of the coastal city of Netanya which is always crowded with soldiers from nearby bases waiting at a row of yellow bus stops. The first bomb went off outside a snackbar at 9.30am. As people ran to help they were caught by the blast from a second device.

"I was driving to Netanya from the east when I felt the first explosion lift my car," said a shaken Ben-Armon Ofer, a 21-year-old construction worker. "I got out and saw the police and others running and then there was a second bang." Joseph Savir, a doctor standing in a white gown smeared with blood, said he had been alerted to come to Beit Lid after the first bomb but the second had caused most casualties.

The range of the two blasts was not very great but the force was devastating. The top of a tree was snapped off. Breeze blocks from the east wall of the snackbar tumbled forward. Ultra-orthodox rabbis were carefully searching for human remains in the wreck of a car.

The bombing has severely damaged Mr Rabin, whose popularity has been in sharp decline in recent months. When he arrived by helicopter at Beit Lid yesterday the crowd jeered him, calling for an end to his government. Although the mood of local people and hundreds of soldiers and police was subdued a group of youths started shouting: "Death to the Arabs."

President Weizman, an early and vigorous proponent of talks with the PLO, caused surprise yesterday by saying that the advance towards peace had run into a minefield and it was time to change course. "I don't think I'm exaggerating if I say the tension, the mood, the feeling among Israelis is terrible," he said, adding that if Mr Arafat did not have the influence to stop the attacks "maybe we are talking to the wrong man".

Mr Arafat condemned the attack but his supporters say it is precisely because Mr Rabin has moved so slowly on redeploying Israeli troops out of Palestinian territory, as agreed under the 1993 agreement signed in Washington, and has failed to curtail the building of Israeli settlements that attacks like that at Beit Lid cannot be stopped. Crowds of Islamic Jihad supporters gathered at the homes of the bombers yesterday. Sukkar's father and other relatives hurled missiles and abuse at 300 Jihad sympathisers outside their home.

The site of the attack may have been chosen not only to cause maximum casualties but because the shattered snack-bar is overlooked by Hasharon prison, where, Israel holds Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the fundamentalist Hamas movement.

Although the bombers evidently came from Gaza to the south their most obvious route to Beit Lid was from the large Palestinian town of Tulqarm on the western edge of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Rabin's desperation, page 10

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