West Bank suicide bomber kills 3 soldiers

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT  |  Oct. 27, 2002 at 5:49 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Three soldiers were killed and 15 wounded Sunday, when a suicide bomber's explosives detonated at a gas station near the entrance to Ariel, an Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank, officials said.

Two of the fatalities were army officers and the third was a warrant officer, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman said. Eight of the wounded are also soldiers, the spokesman added.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the bombing.

According to a leaflet signed by the group and distributed in the West Bank, the bomber was identified as Mohamed Eshqeir. The newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Eshqeir, 19, of Nablus, was on the IDF's list of wanted terrorists.

Eyewitnesses gave conflicting accounts, but it appears that the man aroused suspicion when he entered the area, which includes a hotel, restaurant and gas station.

Jeffrey Wearner, 37, a civilian security man who immigrated from Hollywood, Calif., and Yitzhak Zehavi, 27, a reservist who immigrated from New Jersey and was wounded Sunday, said that when the militant was spotted, he moved back with raised hands.

Police spokesman Rafi Yaffe said the man was asked to identify himself and raise his hands and shirt. At that point, people saw he was wearing a belt carrying explosives.

The gas station's owner and a worker grabbed the man's hands to prevent him from detonating the charge and shouted at soldiers to shoot him, said Yehiel Hazan, a witness to the bombing.

According to Warner, Eshqeir ended up on the ground, held down by soldiers.

Shahar Keshet, a civilian who refueled at the station, ran towards them. He said that the militant was punched and kicked and when told a suicide belt was found on Eshqeir's body, "without thinking I pumped a bullet or two in his head."

A medic quoted another soldier as claiming to have shot Eshqeir.

Several accounts suggested the shots may have detonated the explosives. An IDF spokesman said the army and the police are studying that possibility.

"We heard shouting and after a second we heard a shot and a powerful explosion," said Amir Mizrahi, a local truck driver.

Another wounded man, Ilan Ben-Yishai, said a soldier fired at the militant's head and "as he landed on the ground he blew up."

The gas station itself did not catch fire, the fire department said.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said that three Israelis and the bomber were killed. The dead officers were reserve Maj. Amir Massad, 41, and Lt. Matan Zagron, 22. The third soldier's name was not released.

At least three of the wounded were in serious condition, authorities said.

Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Ranteesi, said that the attack "is the natural Palestinian reaction of people living under the repression of the occupation."

David Baker, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, told Ha'aretz:

"Once again, the vicious agenda of Palestinian terrorists has taken its toll."

The settlement of Ariel was the scene of another suicide bombing in March, when a bomber blew himself up in the lobby of the Eshel Hashomron hotel, wounding 14 people.

Sunday's bombing was the second in Israel in the last seven days.

Meanwhile, Israeli undercover soldiers Sunday killed two Palestinians in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Palestinian witnesses and medical sources claimed Israeli soldiers wearing civilian clothes clashed with three Palestinian militants, killing two and wounding one. The witnesses said after the confrontation began, additional Israeli forces stationed nearby supported the soldiers.

Two soldiers were slightly wounded in the confrontation, sources said.

Military sources identified one of the dead as an Islamic Jihad activist, Aimu Mohammad Rashid. They said he was armed.

(Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza contributed to this story)

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