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Seven Schoolgirls Killed on Day of Sorrow

As the town of Dunblane remembered the sixteen children and their teacher killed on the first anniversary of their deaths yesterday, a horrific echo of that event occurred in the Middle East when a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli schoolgirls.

Death on Peace Isle

THE fragile peace of the Middle East was rocked once again yesterday when a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli schoolgirls on the very anniversary of the Dunblane massacre.

He had opened fire with an automatic rifle from a watch tower.

The girls were on a field trip to an island on the River Jordan, a place known as the "island of peace".

Six students, aged 13 and 14, were wounded in the shooting on the Israeli-Jordanian border.

The soldier began shooting as a group of about 80 stood near his watch tower on a grassy hill, witnesses said.

He then climbed down, chased the terrified students while shooting, changed clips in his weapon and fired more shots before he was overpowered by Jordanian soldiers.

"I heard shots," said one of the wounded girls, Oranit Burgauker,13. "I turned around and saw a soldier put in a magazine clip and fire. We ran down the hill and took cover. He fired at my hand."

It was not clear whether the gunman, Lance Corporal Ahmed Yousef Mustafa, 22, had political motives or was mentally unstable. The gunman, who lives in the Jordanian town of South Shuna near Naharayim island, worked as an army driver.

He had been sitting in an army jeep, when, without warning, he grabbed an assault rifle from a fellow soldier in the vehicle and opened fire. He ran toward the girls, shooting as he approached. Israeli reports said one of the Jordanian soldiers tried to climb off the tower to stop him, but fell and injured himself.

Outside Shuna hospital in Jordan, hundreds of Jordanians who had heard of the shooting waited in line to donate blood.

The gunman's mother begged King Hussein to have mercy on her son. She said he was insane. "For God's sake, King Hussein stand by my son. He has a mental illness. Have mercy on Ahmed."

Jordan said the gunman had been arrested and "will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law".

Jordanian soldiers at the scene also said he was mentally unstable.

However, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy suggested there was a link between the shooting and the recent strong criticism by Jordan's King Hussein of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Bilateral relations are in a deep crisis.

"Recent declarations created a psychological atmosphere that could lead to such tragic acts," Mr Levy told Jordan's prime minister, Mr Abdul-Karim Kabariti, in a phone conversation.

King Hussein cut short a tour of Spain and the United States to head an investigation into the shooting. An aide said: "He considers these treacherous bullets to have been directed against him and his sons and daughters in his own home."

At a funeral for four of the victims last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Israel would remain strong. "If someone thinks that the murder of little girls will defeat this people he doesn't know (us)," he told thousands gathered at the cemetery in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh.

Earlier Mr Netanyahu said he expected Jordan to act swiftly.

"This was a violent, criminal attack on a bus full of children. Young girls were murdered. We expect the Jordanian government to act vigorously to bring the perpetrators to justice," Mr Netanyahu said.

President Clinton called the shootings a "senseless denial of a future for these children" and added: "There is no justification or excuse for these acts."

Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said: "I am deeply shocked and saddened by this tragic loss of innocent Israeli children's lives ....

"We're not supposed to be afraid of Arabs now there's peace," said a stunned student, 12-year-old Edan Edri.

"How is it peace, when they are dead?" asked 13-year-old Oren Alouk. "This is peace?"

The island of Naharayim, about 50 miles north-east of Tel Aviv, is a tourist attraction because of the view it offers of Jordan, Syria and Israel, and because of the unusual ar-rangements concerning control of the land.

Israel captured the island in the 1967 Mideast war, and returned it to Jordanian control under the 1994 peace accord. Israel continues to lease land there for agricultural use. Israelis have free access to Naharayim, referred to as "the island of peace."

Seven casualties were taken to a nearby Jordan hospital, and of those, five were dead on arrival, said the Jordanian Health Minister, Dr Aref Batayneh.

The five bodies, draped in white cloth shrouds, were later flown to Israel.

Two dead girls were taken to the Israeli side. Four wounded received treatment in Israel, police said.

The incident came at a time of heightened tensions between Israel and Jordan and an exchange of angry letters between the two countries' leaders.

King Hussein has accused Mr Netanyahu of endangering Middle East peace with his hardline policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Israel radio said that the king called Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, but not Mr Netanyahu.

The king expressed regret, sorrow and anger at the killings, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat telephoned Mr Netanyahu to express his condolences.

The Electronic Herald, 14 March 1997
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