Sharon to press on as 8 Israelis killed in bus blast

 

MIDDLE EAST: A Hamas suicide-bomber blew up a Jerusalem-bound bus outside Haifa yesterday, killing eight Israeli passengers, and reinforcing the Prime Minister Mr Ariel Sharon's determination to maintain Israel's 13-day-old "anti-terror" offensive in the West Bank.

"People were blown out of the windows," said eyewitness Mr Eli Levy. "I saw hands and legs and other body parts on the road." A White House spokesman said the bombing underlined "the need for all parties to step back - for Israel to withdraw, and for the Palestinians and the Arabs to stop the violence, stop the killing".

Mr Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the Palestinian Authority's general-secretary, said that the attack "proves the failure of Sharon's sweeping invasion in Palestinian territories".

Mr Sharon was adamant, however, that the nine-day lull in such bombings only proved how vital it was "to finish the job" in the West Bank. Speaking outside Jenin, scene of the heaviest fighting in recent days, he said the US should not put "pressure on us" to withdraw forces prematurely.

Hamas claimed last night that the suicide-bomber, Ayman Abu Haija, came from Jenin refugee camp, and that his "success" was thus all the more painful a blow against Israel, which has been waging intense battles against dozens of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah gunmen in the narrow alleys of the camp.

There are reports of 100-plus Palestinian fatalities, more than 20 soldiers killed, and large numbers of refugee families left homeless. Senior Palestinian negotiator, Mr Saeb Erekat, said at least 500 Palestinians had been killed since Israellaunched a military offensive in the West Bank.

Israeli security sources said the bomber had been dispatched from Tulkarm - one of two West Bank cities from which troops pulled back, under intense US pressure, on Tuesday night.

Palestinian officials said that today has been declared "a day of salute to the heroes and martyrs" of Jenin. Israeli officials said the gun-battles had been between troops "and terrorists responsible for a series of suicide bombings". Some 300 Palestinians - gunmen as well as civilians - emerged yesterday from a small area of the camp where fighting has been at its height.

To the south, in Nablus, the lifting of an army closure order revealed the casbah area shattered by the fighting.

Up to 75 Palestinians are said to have been killed in the city, many but not all of them gunmen. Israel said it uncovered more than a dozen bomb-making laboratories, and arrested four of its most feared Hamas leaders among the hundreds of people it detained. Outside Hebron yesterday, the local Hamas leader was killed in a clash with troops.

In Bethlehem an Armenian monk, Armen Sinanian, was hit by sniper fire inside his room at the Church of the Nativity compound, and was in a serious condition in an Israeli hospital last night.

Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen blamed each other for the gunfire at the church, where Israeli forces are maintaining a siege, demanding the surrender of 100 or more Palestinian gunmen who are inside along with several dozen members of the clergy. A Palestinian civilian was reported shot dead by soldiers on the outskirts of the city.

Mr Sharon told colleagues yesterday that there would be no retreat in Bethlehem until the gunmen surrendered, and no lifting of the siege on Mr Arafat in Ramallah either until the alleged killers of Israel's tourism minister, inside with Mr Arafat, were handed over.

Since the army would also oppose a pullback from Nablus and Jenin, this leaves Mr Sharon headed for a direct confrontation with the US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, due here tonight.