Violence returns to Israel as Hamas suicide bombers kill at least 16 in double bus blasts

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The Independent Online

At least 16 people were killed and more than 90 wounded yesterday when Palestinian suicide bombers struck two buses in the southern desert city of Beersheba. They detonated their devices within seconds of each other as the blue buses took passengers home from the city centre on a sweltering afternoon. One bus burst into flames, billowing thick, grey smoke; the other had all its windows pulverised and roof blown off.

At least 16 people were killed and more than 90 wounded yesterday when Palestinian suicide bombers struck two buses in the southern desert city of Beersheba. They detonated their devices within seconds of each other as the blue buses took passengers home from the city centre on a sweltering afternoon. One bus burst into flames, billowing thick, grey smoke; the other had all its windows pulverised and roof blown off.

Commentators predicted swift retribution against Hamas, which claimed responsibility in leaflets distributed in Hebron, 26 miles away across the West Bank border. "This is only a spark out of a volcano that will never be extinguished," the leaflets said.

After the last mass carnage, warplane strikes killed two Gaza Hamas leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. This time, Israel's Channel Two television blamed Imad Kawasmeh, Hams military commander in Hebron.

Yesterday's suicide attack was the first successful one since 10 workers were killed at Ashdod port five months ago and only the second bombing of any kind inside Israel this year.

Ya'acov Terner, the city's mayor and former national police chief, vowed that the new school year would start today as planned, but "the joy has gone out of it".

Eli Oren, now in hospital, was in the second bus. "I saw the bus ahead of us blow up," he said. "The roof flew off, then ours blew up too. There was a silence as everybody was flung in all directions. Two hours later I'm still in shock and my ears are still ringing."

Barely hours before, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had announced an accelerated timetable for the evacuation of 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the northern West Bank. He refused to be deterred either by the hard-right rank-and-file of his own Likud party, which has voted twice against the disengagement, or by yesterday's outrage. His spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, said: "The Prime Minister will continue with his two-pronged policy, a relentless effort to implement disengagement, the only hope of better days for both peoples, while relentlessly engaging the terrorists wherever they are, either by bringing them to justice or bringing justice to them."

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, condemned the bombing, saying the Palestinian Authority opposed all attacks on innocent civilians, Jewish or Arab.

The Beersheba bombings provoked fresh demands for the Israeli government to extend the much-criticised West Bank barrier south from Jerusalem to protect Beersheba and other Negev communities. So far, construction has concentrated on the northern end of the West Bank. Security chiefs say the fence has reduced attacks from there by 90 per cent. That, they say, is why the bombers have turned their sights on the south.

Construction was suspended after the International Court of Justice and the Israel Supreme Court censured Mr Sharon for building the fence without regard for the human rights of the occupied Palestinians. But pressure will now grow for work to resume, on a different route.

Mr Sharon wants ministers to approve the detailed disengagement plan by 24 October. It will be submitted to parliament a week later for first reading. Officials hope the legislation will be completed within two months. He intends to complete the evacuation in one go, rather than the staged withdrawal originally proposed.

A few hours before the Beersheba bombing, an Israeli policewoman stopped and disarmed a would-be suicide bomber at Gaza's Erez checkpoint. He was said to be wearing an explosive belt sewn to look like underpants.

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