JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (BosNewsLife)-- The Palestinian militant group Hamas has claimed responsibility for simultaneous suicide bomb attacks that killed at least 15 passengers on board two buses in the Israeli city of Beersheba and injured as many as 90 people, on Tuesday, August 31, more victims than previously estimated.
Hamas made its claim in leaflets distributed in Hebron, the closest Palestinian city to Beersheba, saying the attack was "avenging Israel's assassinations" of two of its leaders earlier this year.
Israel assassinated Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Hamas has repeatedly pledged to avenge their deaths, but had taken little action before Tuesday, August 31, the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported.
"If you thought that the martyrdom of our leaders would weaken our missions and discourage us from Jihad, then you are dreaming," the Hamas leaflet said.
The announcement came as Israeli police officers as well as rescue and recovery volunteers were seen gathering bodies in front of the destroyed buses. Eyewitnesses said the buses burst into flames about 100 yards apart near a bustling intersection in Beersheba, the largest city in southern Israel
"People were screaming and yelling. Everybody was running," Witness Tzvika Schreter, a 50-year-old college lecturer told AP.
Reporters expressed surprise about the location of the blasts, the first suicide attacks in nearly half a year. Beersheba, a town of some 150,000 people, is located in the Negev desert roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the Gaza Strip and had been far removed from the usual scenes of Palestinian militant violence. It is regarded as an important historic site by Israelis, as the Bible refers to it in conjunction with Abraham and Isaac, seen as arch fathers of Israel.
The last successful suicide bombings were on March 14 when two Palestinians blew themselves up in the Israeli port of Ashdod, killing 10 people. That attack led to an Israeli strike in the Gaza Strip that killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, news reports said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met in an emergency session with top security officials, told Israel
Radio that the Jewish state "will continue fighting terror with all its might."
While he expressed shock about the latest attack, government officials stressed Israel's controversial security barrier being built in and around the West Bank had drastically cut down the number of "successful" terror attacks.
The Israeli military has said the wall combined with sophisticated equipment also helped them to detect
potential suicide bombers easier. Early Tuesday morning, August 31, Israeli troops caught and disarmed a man wearing an explosive belt as he tried to pass through the Erez checkpoint from the northern Gaza Strip into Israel, BosNewsLife monitored.
Palestinian leaders have condemned the suicide blasts and called for an immediate cease-fire and resumption of peace talks. The European Union also condemned the bombing and urged an end to bloodshed in the Middle East.
"The Palestinian interest requires a stop to harming all civilians so as not give Israel pretext to continue its aggression against our people," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said in a statement, AP reported.