Friday 23 November 2001

Boys killed on walk to school as Israeli tank shell explodes

DAILY MAIL, November 23, 2001

From Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

FIVE Palestinian boys were killed yesterday when one of them apparently kicked an unexploded Israeli tank shell as they walked to school in the Gaza Strip.

Witnesses said the youngsters - aged seven to 14 and all members of the same extended family - were blown to pieces by the blast.

Ahmed al-Asttal, a 22-year- old farmer wounded in the blast and a relative of the dead boys, said: 'I thought that the ground was shaking beneath my feet and I was so afraid.

'I couldn't walk. I looked at myself and I saw blood all over my clothes.'

A Palestinian commander in the area, Colonel Khaled Abu al-Ula, said the boys, including two pairs of brothers, had kicked or tripped over the unexploded round.

'After an investigation by our forces and by our explosives expert we can say that it is a tank shell which had not exploded,' he said.

He blamed Israel for the tragedy, saying its army 'continues to fire these bombs and shells at residential areas'.

Israeli officials expressed regret and offered condolences to the families.

But they said if the blast was caused by a tank shell, it had probably been fired earlier in the week in response to a Palestinian mortar attack from the area, in the Khan Younis refugee refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip.

'There was no Israeli military activity in that area today,' said Israeli government spokesman Arye Mekel.

Palestinians have been firing mortars at Israeli soldiers and settlements every day for the past week, often from positions within civilian areas.

A youth who saw the carnage, 15-year- old Fateh al-Astel, said: 'We looked behind us and saw children running.

'I saw dismembered bodies. Half a body here, hands several metres away, another half a body in another place.'

Schoolchildren gathered in the crater left by the explosion, picking up the burnt remains of the boys' backpacks and school books.

Last night, Palestinian president Yasser Arafat blamed Israel for the youngsters' deaths.

He accused it of continued violations and warned of 'an escalation which is dangerous'.

Palestinian officials had initially said the boys were killed when an Israeli tank opened fire, but later admitted the unexploded ordnance had been lying there for some days.