Suicide Car Bomb Kills
At Least 18 In Israel

By Albert Robinson

MEGIDDO JUNCTION, Israel (Reuters) - A Palestinian suicide attacker exploded a powerful car bomb next to an Israeli bus Wednesday, igniting an inferno and killing at least 16 people in a major setback to international peace efforts.
Hours after the bombing, Israeli tanks rolled into Jenin and helicopters fired at targets in the West Bank city regarded by Israel as a militant stronghold, Palestinian witnesses said. The Israeli army called the incursion a "routine patrol."
The blast in northern Israel claimed the highest number of Israeli casualties of any attack since the end early last month of a crushing six-week offensive through the West Bank, launched in response to a wave of suicide bombings.
The militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said it carried out the bombing near Megiddo, the Hebrew name for Armageddon, to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"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.
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.
The car blew up during the morning rush hour. The bus was carrying civilians and soldiers from Tel Aviv to Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee.
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 yards 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 miles from the West Bank.
The use of a car bomb marked a return to a tactic employed only sporadically by militants. Dozens of suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies have been dispatched to Israel since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September 2000.
"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 traveling on the bus with his mother, aunt and girlfriend.
"I kicked the door open with another soldier. I pulled my girlfriend off and then went back and pulled my mother off and then went back and pulled my aunt off," he said in hospital.
The bombing followed a resurgence of Palestinian suicide attacks in the wake of the military offensive in the West Bank that Israel said was intended to halt such violence.
Israeli forces now carry out almost daily raids into Palestinian cities and towns, detaining suspected militants.
Commenting on Wednesday's bombing, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told the BBC: "The answer to this is the resumption of a meaningful peace process." Israel has said Palestinian violence must end before peacemaking can begin.
The blast was only a few kilometers from Jenin, scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the recent Israeli military offensive.
Israel's security cabinet later met for three hours in a session scheduled before the blast. No decisions were announced and political sources said the forum was likely to reconvene later in the day to consider military retaliation plans.
An official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office called the bombing "another cowardly act of terror by the Palestinians, showing again that murder and the Palestinian Authority are indistinguishable."
Arafat aide Ahmed Abdel-Rahman blamed the attack on the "continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas."
He said Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories made it impossible for the Authority to carry out security duties.
Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has been leading the latest diplomatic drive to halt the violence, in which at least 1,379 Palestinians and 486 Israelis had been killed before Wednesday's attack.
He discussed reforms of the Palestinian security forces with Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah Tuesday. Arafat proposed amalgamating nine key Palestinian Authority security services into three agencies.
Israel has made any resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinians conditional on an end to suicide attacks and on wide-ranging reforms within Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
For Israel, the goal of the reforms to the security services would be to increase the Authority's control over Palestinian armed groups and make it more accountable for their actions.
Sharon, who met Tenet Monday, is expected to repeat the demands when he sees President Bush on June 10 at the White House, a month after a previous visit was cut short by a suicide bombing near Tel Aviv in which 15 Israelis died.
Sharon's meeting with Bush will follow the U.S. president's talks Friday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Camp David, with a possible Middle East summit on the horizon.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that after listening to Mubarak and other Middle East leaders, Bush would "determine if there's any additional actions the United States government needs to or should potentially take."


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