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16 killed in suicide bombings on buses in Israel

Hamas claims responsibility


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Blasts on two buses in southern Israel kill more than a dozen people.
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BEERSHEBA, Israel (CNN) -- Two suicide bombers set off almost simultaneous blasts on buses in this southern Israeli city Tuesday, killing 16 people in addition to themselves.

At least 93 people were wounded, medical officials said.

In Gaza City, Hamas fighters drove through the streets with loudspeakers, claiming that a Hamas cell from Hebron in the West Bank carried out the operation.

The military wing of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, has a history of carrying out attacks against Israeli civilians and military. It is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. State Department.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke with the Defense Ministry, the head of Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces' chief about possible operations against terrorists and is to meet with security advisers later, the prime minister's office said.

Israeli troops operating in Hebron surrounded a house Tuesday night belonging to Ahmed Kawasme, known to have ties with Hamas and suspected by Israel of being one of the suicide bombers in Beersheba, Palestinian sources said Tuesday.

Israeli military officials would only say that troops were operating in the city following the bombings. The officials said that army policy is to demolish houses belonging to suicide bombers.

In Ramallah, the office of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei issued a statement condemning the bombing as against Palestinian interests.

"The Palestinian government affirms that such actions are against our national interest and call on them to stop immediately. These actions give Israel the pretext to justify continuing in its assassinations, incursions, attacks on Palestinian civilians, expansion of settlements and construction of the expansion and annexation wall," said the statement.

"We renew our call to the Israeli government to agree to a mutual and immediate cease-fire and to sit and negotiate on final status issues," it said.

Hamas claims retaliation

Hamas said in a statement that the attack was a retaliation for the killings of its leaders.

"This attack comes as a response to the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi and in solidarity with the Palestinian political prisoners in the hunger strike," a reference to two Hamas leaders killed by Israel and to Palestinians in Israeli prisons who are now refusing to eat.

Part of the statement, which is referred to as a military communiqué, is addressed to Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

"If you thought that when you murder our leaders we will stop fighting, you are wrong because martyring our leaders will increase our determination on continuing jihad," the statement said.

Another part of the statement addresses the "Zionist people," saying, "your leaders attack our innocent people" and "you choose to be the armor" for them.

In a reference to Jewish immigration to Israel, the statement says, "This is a present to the immigrants who came recently to our land."

The brigades promised to continue fighting until the last Zionist leaves the "holy land."

Ra'anan Gissin, a senior adviser for Sharon, said it appears that the buses were hit by suicide bombers "who came from the area of Hebron" where the barrier Israel has been erecting in the West Bank to stop such terror attacks "hasn't been built yet."

Israeli Police spokesman Gil Kleiman said that when the first bomb went off, the driver of the second bus proceeded a short distance down the street and began to let passengers off his bus. At that point, said Kleiman, the second bomber set off that blast.

The blasts left the wreckage of both buses smoldering along the side of the street.

Although the Palestinian Authority immediately condemned the attacks and the targeting of any civilians -- Israelis or Palestinians -- Gissin maintained that factions in the authority are undermining peace.

Tuesday's bus explosions come on the day that Sharon announced a timetable for his plan to disengage -- withdrawing all settlers and soldiers from Gaza and portions of the West Bank.

"The government is determined to continue with the disengagement plan, at the same time will continue to fight terrorism as they do on a daily basis," Gissin said. (Full story)

The U.S. State Department condemned the bombings.

"We condemn the horrible terrorist attacks in Israel in the strongest terms," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "There can be no excuse for violence and terrorist attacks the Israeli people have been forced to endure.

Boucher called on Palestinian leaders to take "immediate, credible steps to end terror and violence."

Secretary of State Colin Powell called Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to express condolences.


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