16 Dead in Twin Suicide Attacks on Be'er Sheva Buses

Security forces to launch military offensive in Hebron, where suicide bombers lived, and bolster security along seam line in Negev.

Sixteen people, including a 3-year-old boy, were killed and about 100 others were wounded Tuesday afternoon in near-simultaneous suicide attacks on two buses in the southern city of Be'er Sheva.

Hamas claimed the attacks, the first suicide bombings inside Israel in five months.

Seventeen people were still hospitalized by Tuesday night, eight of them in serious-to-critical condition. All of the wounded were taken to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

The names of six fatalities have been released so far: Karin Malcha, 23, Emanuel Yosef, 28, Shoshana Amos, 50, Tamara Badarshivili, 70, Aviel Atash, 3 and Denise Hadad, 40.

In response to the attack, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided in a Tuesday night meeting with top security officials, security officials will launch a military offensive in the West Bank city of Hebron, the home of Be'er Sheva suicide bombers Ahmed Kawasma and Nassim Jabri.

Hebron will be surrounded and Palestinians' freedom of movement there will likely be severely limited. Shortly after the attack, Israel Defense Forces troops in the West Bank raided the bombers' homes.

Security forces will also bolster security along the seam line between the southern Hebron Hills and the Negev, the area which the suicide bombers apparently passed on their way to carrying out the attack.

In addition, security forces have imposed a full closure on the Gaza Strip in the wake of Monday's attempted suicide bombing at the Erez Crossing. Palestinian workers have also been banned from working in Israel or in the Erez industrial zone until further notice. Assassinations of senior Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip are also expected to increase.

The initial investigation of the Be'er Sheva attack showed that both buses departed from the central bus station in the city, and two suicide bombers - one on each bus - blew themselves up at 2:50 P.M., about 100 meters apart.

"I heard a blast and I started to run to the site. Within seconds there was another explosion," said Gil Yehezekel, the owner of a business close to the location of the attack.

"When I got there, there were people on the floor, wounded people, limbs torn off," he said. "The police and ambulances arrived in seconds."

The driver of the second bus that blew up, Yaakov Cohen, said that when he saw the bus ahead of his explode in a ball of flame he had a premonition his own vehicle would soon be next.

"I saw the first explosion and thought, my God, I've got to get out of here. I drove [my bus] about 10 meters and then opened the doors," he said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for leg wounds.

"I believe that between 10 to 15 people got off my bus. Suddenly I heard a huge explosion. I can't explain it but it was almost as if I knew it was going to happen. It was terrible, terrible ... I don't want to describe what I saw."

Cohen said there had been 20 to 30 people still waiting to leave his vehicle when the bomb went off, and that none of the passengers who boarded his bus earlier had looked suspicious.

"Believe me, I look and check," Cohen said. "It is very hard to identify a bomber ... I don't know how anyone can."

Sharon vowed in the wake of the attacks that "the fight against terror will continue with full strength." Sharon will continue with the disengagement plan, his aides said.

The Palestinian Authority condemned "any attacks that target civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinian," Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat said. The United States and European Union also condemned the attack.

In the Gaza Strip, Muslim leaders praised the "heroic operation" over mosque loudspeakers.

About 20,000 Hamas supporters sang and threw candy in the streets of Gaza City in celebration of the bombings and their casualties.

Hamas claimed responsibility through a leaflet that surfaced in Hebron, 50 km from Be'er Sheva, saying the attacks were meant to avenge Israel's assassination of its two top leaders in helicopter missile strikes in March and April.

"This is but one of a series of responses in which the Iz a Din al-Kassam Brigades have vowed to carry out in response to the martyrdom of the leaders of our movement, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi," it said.

"Revenge is so sweet," said one celebrator, hoisting high a poster of Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi.

The IDF believes that the military wing of Hamas in Hebron is behind the attack.

Hamas supporters said they were pleased the group's repeated attempts to launch attacks against the Jewish state had finally caused Israeli casualties.

"Our religion orders us to respond in kind to aggression against us. You [Israeli people] are the ones who choose your leaders and choose to be their shields. Therefore your shields will suffer more blows," the leaflet said.

"This is a gift to the newcomers who arrived recently to our land," it added in a reference to recent wave of Jewish immigration to Israel. "We say to you: 'This is your fate, so wait.'"

Following the blasts, the police bolstered the number of officers across the country. There had apparently been no alert that an attack was imminent.

Palestinian militants haven't carried out a suicide bombing inside Israel since March 14, when 11 people were killed in the port city of Ashdod.

Earlier Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces soldiers caught a Palestinian man carrying an explosives belt as he tried to cross into Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Emergency numbers:Soroka Medical Center: 12-55-177Immigrant hotline:12-55-80-1010 Be'er Sheva municipality: 08-646-3777