Young soldiers in tears at the horror of bus bombing

 

IT WAS a sight with which Israelis have become all too familiar over the past two years. Only worse.

A civilian bus blown up from the inside, its windows shattered, its seats twisted, its passengers killed and maimed. Bus 18, stopped forever in its tracks a few hundred yards from Jerusalem's central bus station, was even more thoroughly devastated than were its predecessors at Afula, Hadera, Beit Lid, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and on the other side of Jerusalem in 1994 and 1995.

Its roof had been lifted clean away by the force of the blast. Its window frames were no longer even recognisable. The severed parts of its passengers bodies had been thrown dozens of metres away, bits of flesh landing on trees, on road signs.

Mr Benny Levy, the grey haired bus driver who clambered to safety through the hole where his side window had been, sat up in hospital yesterday afternoon, the minor scratches across his face testifying to his extraordinary fortune in escaping almost unscathed. His first thought, he said, was that his bus had been hit by another vehicle. But then he realised this was an explosion, "and the feeling was like I had fallen into an abyss."

Mr Levy estimated that "about 60 or 70" passengers were crowded aboard when the bomber struck at 6.45 a.m. And not one of them, according to Jerusalem police, emerged unharmed.

The driver said he couldn't recall anyone suspicious getting on. "There was one man..." he began, hesitantly, but then trailed off into delayed shock. ". . . But really I don't know."

Mr Arye Amit, the local police chief, said a likely body had been identified among the mangled parts, the corpse of a man who had been near the centre of the bus, and whose feet had evidently been adjacent to the massive charge - a full 10 kg of explosives.

Many of the investigators, rescue workers, and the members of the Orthodox squads whose unenviable task is to collect the various parts of the corpses for burial, had seen similar mayhem before, in the aftermath of previous bombings. But still they were overcome by the sheer horror of the charred flesh, the ripped limbs. Young soldiers, in floods of tears, were led away by colleagues.

At Beit Lid 13 months ago, one bomb had been followed by a second, killing and wounding those who had come to help the first victims. And so, in Jerusalem yesterday, the initial fear was that a second device might explode at any moment. In the event, there was a second fireball - but it exploded an hour's drive to the south, near the town of Ashkelon.

And so the fear shifted in Jerusalem, from a second Palestinian bomber, to the prospect of right wing Israeli rioting. Last year, each fresh bombing was followed by raucous Israeli protests, at which Yitzhak Rabin was denounced as a killer, and which ultimately forced the prime minister to stay away from scenes such as this.

Yesterday, his successor, Mr Shimon Peres, opted to brave the protesters. And for the most part, the onlookers showed restraint, "with only a few dozen demonstrators booing and jeering the prime minister . . . After he had gone, though, the ferocity of the protests intensified, and some in the angry mob adapted the Palestinian anthem and chanted, "With blood and, fire, we will throw Peres out."

. An American couple in their 20s were among those killed in the bus explosion, the US's Jerusalem embassy said.