At least 15 die in bus attacks in Israel

At least 15 people were killed and more than 80 wounded in the twin suicide bombings of two buses in the southern Israeli town of Beersheva on Tuesday, police and medical sources said.

The attack came hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled an accelerated timetable for his plan to pull settlers and troops out of the Gaza Strip as part of a larger project to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

Ten of those being treated in hospital were in either serious or critical condition, said sources from Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross.

An anonymous spokesperson for the radical Palestinian movement Hamas claimed responsibility for the twin attacks, in a phone call to AFP.

Police sources said one bomber had boarded each of the buses several moments before the explosions in the centre of the city.

“This attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who carried their charges for three minutes on the buses before blowing themselves up,” one source said.

The explosions went off shortly before 3pm local time near the city hall, completely destroying one of the buses and setting the second on fire.

The two buses were 100m apart when the blasts occurred. Several charred bodies wrapped in plastic were still seen lying next to the remains of one of the vehicles.

Police spokesperson Gil Kleiman said that no specific alerts had been received prior to the blasts but added there had been “general warnings”.

Initial reports said there had been a third explosion in a nearby shopping centre, but police said it was a false alarm.

Sharon said after the attack that his government will not relax in its “fight against terror”.

“We have to fight terror—that is what my government is doing. The struggle against terror will be pursued to the fullest extent,” he told reporters in Jerusalem.

The last Palestinian attack in Israel was on July 11, when one young female soldier was killed in a blast at a bus stop.

Negotiations Minister Saeb Erakat said the Palestinian Authority condemns any attack that targets civilians.

“The Palestinian Authority condemns attacks which target civilians, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian,” Erakat said.

New timetable for Gaza

Sharon had earlier unveiled an accelerated timetable for his controversial Gaza pull-out plan, brushing aside opponents by predicting it would win parliamentary approval in early November.

A bullish Sharon told deputies from his right-wing Likud party that he will present the main legal provisions of his controversial project to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip to his Security Cabinet on September 14.

He will then present the full details to his Cabinet on September 26, which is scheduled to vote on the project on October 24.

“I expect that on November 3, the law will be adopted in a first reading in Parliament,” he added.

The full legal provisions were not originally expected to be unveiled until early next year.

“This plan will be applied, and that’s it,” Sharon warned opponents of the plan at the meeting in the Israeli Parliament.

Sharon’s so-called disengagement plan, which also envisages a strengthening of control over larger settlement blocs in the West Bank, has run into major opposition among Likud hardliners.

He lost his overall parliamentary majority in June when traditional right-wing allies baulked at the prospect of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank.

The Likud convention voted earlier this month against Sharon inviting the main opposition Labour party into a new broad-based governing coalition, a move seen as vital for the project to receive a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

The government has previously announced that all the 8 000 settlers should have left Gaza by September next year and troops will be pulled out by the end of 2005.

Reports on Tuesday said that the evacuations could start as early as February next year, but there was no confirmation from Sharon.

Speaking before the prime minister addressed the Likud faction, a close aide would not rule out the possibility that some of the 21 Gaza settlements and the four in the West Bank could be evacuated before the end of the year.

“If the residents agree to receive advance compensation payments, it is possible that these areas can be evacuated before the end of the year, which will facilitate the evacuation from other settlements,” he said on condition of anonymity.—Sapa-AFP

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