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Haifa suicide bomber kills 15

Israeli forces move into Gaza camp

An Israeli volunteer worker stands in front of the bomb-shattered bus.
An Israeli volunteer worker stands in front of the bomb-shattered bus.

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CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports the Haifa bombing that killed 15 was the first terror attack inside Israel in two months (March 5)
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CNN's Paula Zahn talks with Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna about the terror bombing
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HAIFA, Israel (CNN) -- A suicide bomber set off a powerful explosion that destroyed a suburban bus in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on Wednesday, killing at least 15 Israelis and badly wounding at least 40, Israeli police said.

Hours later, Palestinian hospital officials said 11 Palestinians were killed and nearly 100 injured Thursday during an Israeli operation near the Jabaliya refugee camp.

The Israeli army said its forces were still operating near Jabaliya early Thursday, after demolishing the house of a senior Hamas activist and an adjacent building used for weapons storage. The Israeli forces also arrested a senior member of the militant group.

The Israeli forces encountered fierce resistance from armed Palestinians, both Palestinian and Israeli sources said.

However, the circumstances of the reported Palestinian casualties were not immediately clear. The Israeli army said it was checking reports that Israeli forces fired a tank shell into a crowd of unarmed Palestinians.

Some reports said the Palestinians had gathered to inspect the damage left behind by the Israeli forces, while others said they were trying to put out a fire.

Bombed bus was carrying students

At the time of the Haifa bombing, bus No. 37 was carrying many high school and college students on Mount Carmel in Haifa about 2 p.m. (7 a.m. ET), Assistant Police Commander Dani Kuffler said.

Three of the 15 who died perished en route to the hospital. Many of the wounded were in serious condition, authorities said. The suicide bomber was killed in the blast.

A spokesman for the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas lauded the attack.

"We are sending the clear message that the will of resistance will continue until the elimination of the occupation," Mahmoud a-Zahar said. "This is a clear message for the government that Israeli crimes, Israeli aggression will be answered by a well-effective resistance from the Palestinian side."

Hamas has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. Izzedine al Qassam has admitted responsibility for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as well as attacks against the Israeli military.

Witnesses to Wednesday's attack described a scene of horror.

"It is very difficult to look at," a witness told Israel Radio.

Another witness, quoted by Channel 2, said, "The center of the bus lifted up into the air, the roof was torn off. It looked like a blast inside the bus, and within seconds people began taking the wounded out of the bus."

The blast, which occurred on the city's main Moriah Boulevard near the Carmel Center as the bus was pulling out of a stop, also damaged stores in the area, said Police Chief Gil Kleiman.

Wednesday's bombing was the first terror attack inside Israel in two months. The last such attack was January 5, when at least 23 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a double-suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

start quoteThe center of the bus lifted up into the air, the roof was torn off.end quote
-- Witness quoted by Channel 2

"The attack in Haifa is yet another Palestinian bloodletting of innocent Israeli civilians," David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, told the Israel daily Haaretz. "Israel will not tolerate this terror, and will continue to take the necessary steps to eradicate it."

Israeli forces have conducted an extensive campaign in Palestinian territories to root out terrorists, Israeli officials say. Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo said that campaign has killed 154 Palestinian civilians since the last suicide bombing.

"We condemn all attacks against civilians, including today's attack in Haifa," he said. "The attack will only serve to distract attention from the more than 150 Palestinian civilians killed by Israel over the last two months."

Israeli officials defended their efforts.

"The sort of deceptive lull the past two months of the attacks was mainly because of the sustained effort on our part to stop terrorist activity and to prevent suicide and homicide bombings from coming out of the territories or out of Gaza," said Israeli government spokesman Ranaan Gissin. "Had we not taken this campaign we would have had many suicide and homicide bombings like the one we experienced today in Haifa."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Palestinian officials "reject the finger-pointing of the Israeli government at the Palestinian Authority."

"They urge President Bush once again to focus on helping Palestinian and Israelis break this vicious cycle of violence by introducing the road map immediately," he said.

Erakat was referring to the so-called "road map" plan aimed toward eventual Mideast peace that is being developed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "the president condemns in the strongest terms today's attack on innocent in Israel."

"The president stands strongly with the people of Israel in fighting terrorism," he said. "His message to terrorists is their efforts will not be successful. We will continue to pursue the path of peace in the Middle East."

While the officials waged a media war of accusations and counter-accusations, authorities in Haifa were still searching the charred ruins of the suburban bus. Part of its roof was gone and the back end of the bus -- where police believe the explosion took place -- was thrown over the top.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Mike Hanna and Correspondents Jerrold Kessel and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report

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