BEERSHEBA, Israel, Aug. 31 -- Nearly simultaneous explosions tore through two buses in the heart of this southern Israeli city Tuesday afternoon, killing at least 16 passengers along with the two Palestinian suicide bombers and wounding dozens of people in blasts that shattered a five-month respite from major attacks inside Israel.
Israeli police said two Palestinian suicide bombers detonated their explosives within 20 seconds of each other on two buses about 100 yards apart near city hall, shredding bodies and spewing clothes, groceries and schoolbooks through the shattered windows.
People wounded in the bombings in Beersheba are evacuated from the scene. The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attacks.
_____At the Scene_____
Video: Two buses exploded almost simultaneously in southern Israel on Tuesday.
"There were burned bodies on the windows and at the entrances of the bus," said Gershon Kalimi, chief of the fire brigades who said he reached the first bus to explode five minutes after the blast. "Then we went to the other bus and we saw the same horrible images: burned bodies, burning bus, trapped people, people lying on the ground, people calling for help."
Beersheba, a Negev desert city 55 miles south of Tel Aviv, had not been hit by suicide bombers during the four years of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But officials said militants had been drawn southward because Israel's construction of a massive barrier and relentless military operations in the northern West Bank have blocked attacks there.
"They went into the soft belly of Israel where the fence has not been erected," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "The ultimate truth for the necessity of the fence was given today: Wherever there's no fence, it's easy to penetrate into Israel."
The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attacks in announcements from mosques in the West Bank town of Hebron and the Gaza Strip, saying they were retribution for Israel's assassinations of top Hamas leaders in Gaza last spring and the poor treatment of Palestinians in Israeli jails, hundreds of whom are in the second week of a hunger strike.
Palestinian sources identified the bombers as Ahmed Kawasma and Nassim Jabri, who were neighbors in Hebron, about 28 miles northeast of Beersheba. On Tuesday night, Israeli military forces surrounded the houses of both men and ordered their families to evacuate, according to footage aired by the al-Jazeera television network. The Israeli military usually destroys the homes of bombers soon after an attack.
"We went into Hebron this evening following intelligence that the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks today came from a terror network in Hebron," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, a spokeswoman for the Israeli army. She said military forces were expected to increase operations in Hebron in the coming days.
"The fight against terror will continue with full strength," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said as he prepared to meet with senior security officials Tuesday night to plan a response to the bombings. Sharon said he would also push forward with his plan to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, a proposal that has been opposed vociferously by hawkish members of his Likud Party.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who was in Egypt on Tuesday, told the Reuters news agency, "Killing civilians, whether from the Palestinian side or from the Israeli side, will achieve nothing except hatred and more enmity, and therefore we condemn that strongly."
The most recent Palestinian suicide attack was on March 14 in the southern port city of Ashdod, where two bombers from the Gaza Strip killed 10 people. Since then, the lull in violence in hard-hit Jerusalem and other cities had brought an unusually placid summer and rejuvenated nightlife that had disappeared in the early months of the Palestinian uprising, which began in September 2000.
Beersheba, a city of 183,000 people, serves as a commercial and service hub for the southern Negev desert region of Israel. There had been one previous attack here, in February 2002, when two Hamas militants killed a pair of Israeli soldiers in a drive-by shooting at the entrance of a military base.
At about 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, the No. 12 and No. 6 Metro Dan buses pulled out of this sprawling city's main bus station. Each made two stops as they headed north, according to Dudi Cohen, chief of police for Israel's southern district. He said police had not determined whether the bombers boarded the buses at the main terminal or at one of the stops.
The No. 12 drove through a main intersection, with the No. 6 about half a block behind, police said. At 2:55 p.m., a blast tore through the No. 12 bus.