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Vehicle Filled with Explosives Kills at Least 14 in Bus Crash

By Peter Hermann

At least 14 people were killed Monday in northern Israel when Palestinian militants rammed a vehicle packed with explosives into a commuter bus, which exploded in a fireball and trapped passengers.

The exact number of casualties was unclear Monday night. Israeli police said one or two Palestinians were in the vehicle and died in what appeared to be a suicide attack. More than 50 people were injured.

Ammunition carried by more than a dozen soldiers on the bus exploded and flew through the bus, adding to the carnage and frightening many who thought someone was shooting at them even as they struggled to escape.

The Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack in a message on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station in Beirut, Lebanon.

Witnesses reported two explosions -- one from the initial blast and another when the fuel tank on the bus blew apart. People rushed to help but were forced back by the heat and flames.

The blast was so powerful that several cars driving nearby were flattened. The only recognizable piece from the car containing the bomb was the engine, which landed 300 feet from the bus. Rescue workers were pulling bodies from the wreckage for more than three hours.

Michael Yitzhaki was sitting behind the bus driver reading a book and managed to get out with only minor injures. He saw one passenger crawl out through a window and another squeeze through a hole in the floor, where the engine had been.

“The others burned in the bus,” he said.

“I heard soldiers screaming. The bus caught fire immediately and with surprising speed. Everything filled with smoke. It was difficult to watch people we couldn’t help.”

The bombing occurred at the Karkur Junction, which is on a road that links northern towns to coastal cities. More than a dozen attacks have occurred along this stretch of highway in the past two years, mainly because of its proximity to the West Bank.

In its statement, the Islamic Jihad said it carried out the attack to avenge the deaths of more than 30 Palestinian civilians during Israeli army raids in the Gaza Strip this month. Monday also was the seventh anniversary of the death of one of the group’s leaders, Fathi Shikaki, in Malta -- a killing the organization has blamed on an Israeli assassination.

The United States is urging restraint from all sides, making it clear to Israel that it must refrain from reprisals that would harm Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or cause heavy civilian casualties.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns is in the region promoting Washington’s newest peace proposal. It calls for the Palestinians to reform their government and end violence, leading to a regional peace summit and the recognition of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.