Barak takes action after Israel bus attack

A Palestinian rammed a bus into a crowd of Israeli soldiers and commuters at a bus stop today, killing at least eight people in the bloodiest attack in Israel since a Palestinian uprising began in September.

Seventeen people, mostly soldiers, were also injured in the attack in Azur, south of Tel Aviv.

Israel Radio said the dead were four female soldiers, three male soldiers and a civilian woman.

A hitherto unknown Palestinian group later claimed responsibility for the attack, Qatari satellite television station al-Jazeera reported.

Jazeera said it received an Arabic-typed statement from a group calling itself "Return Brigades" saying it carried out the attack to avenge the Israeli assassination of a member of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's elite security force in Gaza yesterday.

Masould Ayad, 54, a senior member of Force 17, tried but failed to leap from his car after the first of at least three missiles struck it near the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Violence has worsened since the rightist Ariel Sharon, seen by Arabs as a war criminal for organising Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was elected Israeli prime minister last week.

Israel blamed the bus attack on 35-year-old Khalil Abu Elba, a driver form the Gaza Strip who had security clearance to ferry Palestinians to work and had been doing so for several years. Israel Radio said the permit was renewed only two weeks ago.

Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak called it "an abominable crime against innocent residents on their way to work and soldiers on their way to their bases." He vowed to punish those responsible.

Barak sealed off Palestinian-ruled areas in response to the killings, closing Palestinian Authority international crossings.

Sharon said he took a "grave view" of the bus attack and vowed to provide security when he takes over as premier.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, an aide to Arafat, said Israel and Barak must take the blame for the attack because "violence only begets violence".

Almost 400 people have now been killed in violence during the nearly five-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More than 300 were Palestinians, 61 were Israelis and 13 were Israeli Arabs.

The revolt erupted with the breakdown of peace talks.