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Car bomb kills 8 in Israel

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- A teen-age Palestinian suicide bomber ignited a powerful blast next to a crowded bus stop in northern Israel yesterday, killing eight and wounding about 50.

The extremist Muslim Hamas group said a 19-year-old Palestinian Hamas member carried out the attack in revenge for the Feb. 25 massacre of praying Muslims in Hebron.

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The car bomb ripped into a crowd along a tree-lined street as Israeli and some Arab passengers boarded a public bus in Afula, a blue-collar town just north of the boundary of the occupied West Bank. Many of the victims were students from a nearby vocational school that had just let out.

"I saw burning children get out of the bus. They were burning like torches," said Albert Amos, a driving instructor.

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City officials said the dead included four teen-agers, an Arab woman, two other Israelis and the bomber. He was identified by Hamas as Ra'id Zakarna, of Qabatiya, an Arab village about 15 miles south of Afula in the West Bank.

Shlomo Ohayon, an ambulance driver, said the scene was a "terrifying mess, a slaughterhouse." He said, "People were charred, lacking limbs, lacking heads."

Loudspeakers on mosques in Gaza City hailed the attack as a "heroic suicide operation."

"The policy of Hamas is to continue attacks and continue acts of resistance," said Mohammed Nazal, a spokesman for Hamas in Amman, the Jordanian capital. "We think Hamas has any right to any action inside the territory of Palestine."

Later yesterday, Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip wounded six Israeli soldiers in a grenade attack on an army foot patrol on the outskirts of the Shati refugee camp, said the Reuters news agency in a report attributed to Israeli military officials.

The attackers escaped. None of the soldiers was seriously hurt, the officials said.

Nabil Shaath, the chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, the mainstream Palestinian group pursuing peace talks with Israel, said the bombing in Afula would "add to the difficulties of the situation.

"It is one of the reasons we are pushing for a signing of this agreement -- to stop the killings," Mr. Shaath said in Cairo, Egypt, the site of the latest talks. The bombing generated demonstrations against the Israeli government in more than a dozen locations. Members of the Israeli opposition demanded that peace negotiations with the PLO be halted.

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Rabin to press on

But the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed to press on with the peace process. To stop it would be a concession to peace opponents such as Hamas, government ministers argued.

"I'm very sad, very sorry and very angry," said Police Minister Moshe Shahal. But, "if this affects the peace process, it would be a victory for those who oppose the peace process." Israel is on the verge of withdrawing its troops from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho in the first step to giving Palestinians autonomy over some of the territory captured by Israel in 1967.

Israeli army officials were set yesterday to formally hand over keys to a police station in Gaza City, the first building returned. But Palestinians boycotted the meeting, saying they wanted further progress on the details of the withdrawal.

The car bomb appeared to be the retaliation Israel had long expected for the Hebron killings. It occurred on the 40th day after the massacre, the end of the traditional Muslim mourning period.

It mangled the Opel sedan used for the attack, reducing it to a twisted mass of metal. Bus number 348 was next to the car, loading passengers, when the explosion occurred.

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"We arrived when the mushroom of smoke was still in the air," said one of the first firefighters on the scene. "People's bodies were strewn on the road, the fences, the trees. There were dead bodies without legs or heads. . . . There was a strong smell of burnt bodies."

Hospital officials said about 15 of the 50 injured were in critical condition, many with burns.

Car bombs have rarely been used successfully here even as the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation turned increasingly from a movement of mass protest to one of armed attack. Large quantities of explosives are difficult for Palestinians to obtain. A series of attempted car bombs in recent years using propane gas canisters succeeded mainly in killing the attackers.

385 pounds of explosives

Hamas said in a call to a Western news agency that it used 385 pounds of explosives in the blast.

Police and army units moved to protect nearby Arab communities from the retaliatory attacks that often occur after such incidents.

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"We call on the people to keep cool, keep quiet, not to attack Arab people," Uzi Golan, deputy mayor of Afula, said on Israel Television.

Afula, a town of about 30,000, is surrounded by Israeli-Arab villages and is six miles north of the 1967 "green line" border of the West Bank. There have been several previous incidents of violence that have heightened tension in the town.

Although the West Bank was sealed off after the Hebron massacre, the hilly region has many back roads for bypassing checkpoints. In recent days, Israel eased its crackdown to permit some Arab workers to reach Israeli employers. Rafi Peled, the Israeli police chief, said authorities would immediately block any Arab-licensed cars from entering Israel from the West Bank or Gaza.

Initial reports, however, said the car used in the bomb attack yesterday had yellow Israeli license plates, possibly stolen.

The Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian group opposed to the peace process, also claimed responsibility for the attack. But Israeli officials said it appeared to have been done by Hamas.

Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Israeli opposition Likud bloc, said the attack was the result of a " defeatist, groveling government policy.

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"The government policy of retreat and concession to PLO terrorism really brings us more and more terrorism," he said. "Hardly a day passes by when Jews are not murdered and maimed and mutilated."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres replied that the opposition was trying to exploit the violence in an effort to defeat the peace process. "They are repeating the same story, trying to forget what happened when they were in power, the acts of violence and loss of life," he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Rabin said, "We are determined to reach an agreement with the PLO. That's the only answer to those who try to derail us from that course."



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