Gunmen dressed as soldiers breach settlers' defences

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Palestinian militants disguised themselves as Israeli soldiers in their meticulously planned ambush of a bus carrying Israeli settlers to a West Bank settlement yesterday.

Palestinian militants disguised themselves as Israeli soldiers in their meticulously planned ambush of a bus carrying Israeli settlers to a West Bank settlement yesterday.

The ambush, which killed at least seven people and injured more than 20, was chillingly effective. "We busted in the door to the bus. It was a shocking scene," Yitzhak Kaufman, an Israeli paramedic, told reporters at the scene. "Women and children were lying on the floor, bleeding and screaming for help."

Among the victims, according to reports on Israeli television, were a pregnant woman and a two-year-old child.

The bus was attacked just outside the entrance to the Jewish settlement of Emmanuel, inside the West Bank. The settlers' roads have been dangerous for years, and those who travel them take few chances. The bus was armour-plated and bullet-proof. But the militants had worked out a way around that.

They detonated a bomb hidden by the roadside as the bus passed, according to the Israeli army. The blast turned the bus on its side, and the terrified passengers scrambled for what they thought was safety. As they climbed out of the bus, the gunmen opened fire on them. Witnesses said there were three gunmen, all disguised in Israeli army uniform.

The security chief of the settlement described his own miraculous escape from death after he raced to the scene in his car to investigate reports of a terrorist attack. "I drove ... to the bus and opened my car door and didn't see anyone. I waited a bit and then suddenly three Israeli soldiers emerged from behind the bus.

"I asked them if I could help them, but before I could finish the sentence all three started shooting at me," the security chief, Avrams Cohen, told Israeli television.

Mr Cohen said he ran to his bullet-proof car, threw it into reverse and screeched back towards the settlement, where the engine died only after he reached safety.

This was no suicide attack. The gunmen were able to flee and Israeli helicopters were scouring the surrounding countryside for them yesterday. Police were turning back some rescue services, fearing there could be a second ambush. An ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, which recovers the bodies of attack victims so they can be buried according to Jewish law, said it was too dangerous to recover the bodies. They were still lying by the wrecked bus yesterday afternoon.

The Israeli authorities were quick, as ever, to blame Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, said the attack was "further proof that the Palestinian Authority considers terrorism a primary mode of operation".

Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are at the moment grounded under 24-hour curfew, amid the Israeli reoccupation of West Bank towns and cities. Demands from the Israelis, like those they have made in the past, that Mr Arafat move against the militants are likely to ring hollow, when his security forces are largely unable to act.

A television station in Lebanon run by Hizbollah said it had received a call claiming responsibility for yesterday's attack on behalf of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which Israel says is linked to Mr Arafat's Fatah movement. But the ambush was also claimed by the military wing of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

What yesterday's attack does prove is that Ariel Sharon's policy of reoccupying West Bank towns and cities and putting millions of Palestinians under constant curfew has not stopped militants getting through and has not brought peace to Israelis.

The Israeli Prime Minister ordered the tanks back into West Bank towns, just weeks after they had withdrawn, after 26 people were killed in back-to-back suicide attacks in Jerusalem, and until yesterday there had been no serious attacks for more than three weeks, since five settlers were killed by a gunman on 20 June.

Although Palestinian officials have condemned attacks inside Israel, they do not as a rule condemn those on settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, built in contravention of international law.

The attack cast a shadow over the "Quartet" meeting of the US, UN, EU and Russia in New York, and appeared to have scuppered any chance of a new impetus coming from it.

There did not appear to be much chance of that anyway, with the Americans trying to get the other powers to agree to their policy of calling for Mr Arafat to be replaced.

The recent lull had created a renewed sense of security in Israeli cities. Some Israeli newspapers were crediting Mr Sharon with successfully ending attacks and bringing Israel the security he had promised. This attack will deal a painful disillusionment.

Yesterday, with the Israeli army already in control of the entire West Bank, everybody was waiting to see how Mr Sharon's government will react.