Facebook Twitter

Blast claims 6 Palestinian activists

SHARE Blast claims 6 Palestinian activists

NABLUS, West Bank — An explosion ripped through a car-parts store Monday in the West Bank, killing six Palestinian activists in one of the deadliest single episodes in 10 months of Mideast violence. Hours later, Israeli helicopters rocketed the Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City, injuring two policemen.

The helicopter strike sent white smoke rising from the police compound as people ran frantically from the buildings into the street.

The Israeli military said the compound was used for manufacturing weapons and mortar rounds. Jewish settlements in Gaza have come under frequent mortar attack, and the Israelis have criticized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to prevent the attacks. The police compound is near Arafat's seaside offices, though he was out of the region at the time.

The six activists killed in the blast that destroyed the car-parts store — a roadside tin shack outside the West Bank city of Nablus — were all from Arafat's Fatah movement.

Palestinians called the predawn blast part of Israel's efforts to kill suspected militants. "The Israeli government continues its policy of assassination," said Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman. "This policy will destroy any hope for peace. Resistance will continue."

But Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof called the explosion a "work accident," Israel's euphemism for a Palestinian-made bomb that goes off prematurely. "This is not the first time that the Palestinians have accused Israel of assassinations when explosions like this occurred," she told army radio.

Israeli security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three of the Palestinians were wanted by Israel. They were believed to be involved in two bomb attacks in recent months, the sources said.

The force of the blast blew the roof off the shack, and it was badly burned inside, suggesting the explosion came from within the structure. Palestinian witnesses said they did not hear helicopters or tank guns — signals of earlier Israeli attacks.

The store sits among rows of rusting cars that have been junked, near the al-Fara refugee camp.

Palestinian Mansour Barahmah said he was sleeping when he heard a powerful explosion shortly after 1 a.m. Monday.

"I went there immediately and found a fire," he said. "The bodies were still burning."

The bodies were dismembered by the explosion, and some body parts were tossed 30 yards from a table where the men had been sitting on old car seats, he said. Playing cards, which were apparently in use at the time, were smeared with blood.

The men, ages 22 to 31, regularly slept in the shack, fearing the Israelis would attack them in their homes, Palestinian witnesses said. A seventh man in the shack was seriously wounded, they added.

Also Monday, two Palestinians, ages 17 and 11, were shot by Israeli troops in the southern Gaza Strip near by border with Egypt, Palestinian security sources said. The Palestinians claimed the Israelis fired without provocation, the Israeli army said troops came under fire from anti-tank grenades and shot back.

Monday's violence followed a tense day Sunday in Jerusalem, where Palestinians rained stones on Jewish worshippers commemorating a holy day at the Western Wall, prompting Israeli police to storm a mosque and drive back the crowd with stun grenades.

Sunday's clash came exactly 10 months after the current round of Mideast violence erupted inside the same hilltop compound where two large mosques were built atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples.

Israel claims sovereignty over the compound, which Jews call the Temple Mount. However, the Waqf, an Islamic trust, has day-to-day control over what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

The first clashes in the current violence broke out at the site Sept. 29 — the day after a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, who was opposition leader at the time. Since then, 539 Palestinians and 133 Israelis have died in the fighting.