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Jordan Border Soldier Kills Seven Israeli Girls on Bus

By Marjorie Miller
Los Angeles Times

A Jordanian soldier unleashed a volley of automatic rifle fire on a busload of Israeli schoolgirls who were taking a field trip to the scenic "Island of Peace" border post Thursday, killing seven of the junior high students and wounding six.

Witnesses said 40 to 50 eighth-graders had gotten off of their bus and were surveying the sun-washed view over the River Jordan when the gunman grabbed a fellow soldier's weapon and began firing at the students' backs from a guard tower.

He then climbed down from the tower, chased girls who tried to escape over a ridge blooming with wild flowers, and shot one in the head at close range before he was subdued by other Jordanian soldiers as he stopped to reload, according to accounts from several witnesses.

The brutal attack on 12-year-old and 13-year-old Israelis - and one coming from an Arab whose country is at peace with Israel - stunned the region, despite recent warnings from political leaders that the crumbling of the Mideast peace process could lead to bloodshed.

Jordanian soldiers at the scene called the shooter "a madman" and spoke of his rampage as an "accident." But several Israeli leaders directly and indirectly tied the attack to Jordanian King Hussein's recent criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76 for the Israeli leader's policies toward Palestinians.

"Verbal violence unfortunately can lead to physical violence," Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai said after reviewing the scene of the shooting with Jordan's Prince Hassan.

Earlier this week, King Hussein sent a personal and harshly worded letter to Netanyahu accusing him of "continued deliberate humiliation of your so-called Palestinian partners" in proposing to build a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem and to carry out a smaller troop withdrawal from the occupied West Bank than Palestinians anticipated. He warned Netanyahu that his actions were leading Israelis and Arabs "toward an abyss of bloodshed and disaster, brought about by fear and despair."

In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister David Levy seethed at "this bloody harvest" of schoolchildren and said that attempts to dismiss the gunman as a madman were unacceptable. He warned both Jordan and the Palestinians to lower their rhetoric against Israel.

Following the attack, the Jordanian king cut short a trip to Spain and flew home. Visibly shaken, the king said, "When I warned a few days ago of the danger of the possibility of violence, I never thought it would lead to this."

He initially telephoned Israeli President Ezer Weizman to offer his condolences and promise to work to reduce tensions between the two countries. Later he said he would like to visit the victims' families.

Israelis observing the tragedy focused on reports that Jordanian soldiers were slow to overpower the gunman, and that they kept Israeli rescue teams waiting at the border for 40 minutes before allowing them access to the wounded.

Jordanians interviewed on the streets of their capital, Amman, condemned attacks on civilians and particularly on children, but blamed the conservative Netanyahu for raising tensions in the region to such a degree that something like this could happen.

"It's all the result of the Israeli stubbornness and its unjust policy," said Mohammed Adnan Harbawi, 50.

The attack took place on a verdant hill overlooking the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers southeast of the Sea of Galilee, in an area that Israel returned to Jordan in 1994 as part of their bilateral peace agreement.

The land is leased to Israelis for agriculture and the "Island of Peace" is a popular tourist spot with Israelis because it provides a sweeping view and offers a chance to set foot in Jordan.

Jordanian and Israeli officials said the gunman was a noncombatant draftee with an administrative job in the army who did not have his own weapon. He was variously identified by unnamed military sources in Jordan as Ahmed Moussa or Ahmed Yousef Mustafa, a resident of the town of Adasiya, a few miles northeast of the shooting site.

He is not believed to be a Palestinian.

In New York, the United Nations General Assembly voted 1302 with two abstentions to call on Israel to refrain from actions that "have negative implications" for Middle East peace, including the planned housing project in a traditionally Palestinian area. The United States and Israel voted against it.