Sources in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority were assessing that the Council of Popular Resistance, a Fatah splinter group comprised mainly of former Palestinian security forces was behind the Wednesday attack on an American diplomatic convoy in the north Gaza Strip that killed three U.S. security personnel.
A massive remote-controlled bomb demolished an armor-plated jeep in the convoy carrying U.S. diplomatic personnel, including a cultural envoy from the U.S. embassy, on their way to interview potential Palestinian students who were candidates for an academic Fulbright scholarship.
The U.S. named the three dead security men as John Branchizio, Mark Parson and John Martin Linde. The three were on contract to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv through the defense contracting company Dyncorp, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Branchizio was 37 and born in Texas, Parson was 31 and from New York and Linde was 30 and from Missouri, he said. Their hometowns were not known.
It was the first deadly attack on American officials since the start of the intifada three years ago.
The Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas both denied responsibility for the attack, and there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the incident. Three months ago, a roadside bomb was detonated beside an American convoy traveling in the same area, but without injury.
PA officials say U.S. was warned against Gaza terror attacks.
Senior Palestinian Authority security officials claimed Wednesday that in the past months, they had repeatedly warned U.S. officials to change travel routines in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, in order to avoid attacks like one that killed three American security men travelling in a convoy in the north of the Gaza Strip Wednesday morning.
The PA security officials said they warned Americans that routine movements in GMC vehicles that have diplomatic license plates and conspicuous bodyguards could be dangerous.
Members of militant Palestinian opposition groups could be collecting information about routine movements of the U.S. vehicles and personnel, the PA officials cautioned.
The PA officials say that they formulated such warnings in very specific terms and relayed them on a number of occasions, as in the case of a meeting held three months ago in Ramallah with CIA personnel.
It was established Wednesday that American personnel who coordinate the movements of U.S. officials in the territories communicate travel plans in advance to PA security officials, sending the detailed information by fax or telephone. Such reports spell out the names of persons who are taking part in work trips in the territories, the times when U.S. vehicles re to be moving through various areas, and the routes to be taken by the cars.
In view of this practice of relaying advance information, some analysts speculated Wednesday that the terrorists who perpetrated the attack had advance knowledge of the U.S. convoy's intention to cross into the village of Beit Hanun.
At least a portion of the information attained by the terrorists, these analysts hypothesized, came from official PA sources.
The blast went off around 10:15 A.M. Wednesday as a three-car U.S. diplomatic convoy drove near a gas station on the outskirts of the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, along the main north-south road.
Witnesses at the scene said a silver Cherokee jeep used by American diplomats was completely destroyed by the blast. Parts of the vehicle were strewn in a 30-meter radius around a crater created by the explosion.
The explosion tore the car in half and left the wreckage twisted with the tires up in the air. The pavenment was stained with blood and littered with bits of flesh.
An AP reporter saw a gray wire with an on-off switch leading from the scene of the attack to a small concrete room at the side of the road.
Soon after the blast, the IDF sent tanks and armored vehicles under cover of a helicopter gunship into the northern Gaza areas of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lehiya to aid the Americans in evacuating the wounded man and the bodies of the victims.
An IDF rescue helicopter evacuated the wounded man to Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva.
Later in the day, American security officials investigating the bomb attack left the scene abruptly after Palestinian youths threw stones and rocks at them. The investigators were taking pictures of the bloodied, twisted remains of the van when half a dozen kids threw stones and rocks at them as about 200 Palestinians looked on.
Palestinian police fired in the air to chase away the stone throwers, and U.S. officials rushed into their cars and sped off. Palestinian police beat some people in the crowd, while pushing the spectators back.
The IDF said the targeted jeep was the middle vehicle of the convoy, which carried security men and CIA personnel. A Palestinian security van had preceded the convoy's three armor-plated vehicles.
The CIA spokesman in Washington, Bill Harlow, refuted the reports that CIA officials were in the convoy, saying that "there were no CIA people involved."
The American embassy in Tel Aviv said that contrary to initial reports, U.S. special Middle East envoy John Wolf was not in the convoy. Wolf is responsible for monitoring compliance with the road map peace plan.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was to have paid a visit later in the day to U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer's sukkah, but the bombing forced cancellation of the meeting.
Near the site of the bombing, Mohammed Radwan, a Palestinian taxi driver, said he was at a nearby gas station when the blast went off. "I was about to fill up my car with gas when I saw the American convoy passing," Radwan said. "There was a Palestinian police car in front and then three big (U.S.) cars. When the third one passed, an explosion went off."
"The first two cars drove quickly and stopped far form the explosion. Palestinian security people jumped out of the car and rushed to the car that had blown up. When I tried to approach them, they shouted at me to leave. I saw two people covered with blood lying next to the car." The body of one of the Americans was taken to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.