HAWARA CHECKPOINT, West Bank – A 16-year-old Palestinian with a suicide bomb vest strapped to his torso was on a mission to kill the Israeli soldiers who caught and disarmed him before he could strike, the army said. The youngster told a newspaper he had been afraid to die.
In an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper Thursday, the boy, identified as Hussam Abdo (search), said he wanted to go to paradise but feared killing himself until he neared the Israeli army roadblock and was stopped.
"When the soldiers stopped me, I didn't press the switch. I changed my mind. I didn't want to die anymore," Abdo said, according to the newspaper. "I'm sorry for what I did."
The military said Abdo's mission was to kill soldiers at the crowded West Bank (search) checkpoint.
"In addition to the fact that he would have harmed my soldiers, he would have also harmed the Palestinians waiting at the checkpoint, and there were 200 to 300 innocent Palestinians there," said the commander of the checkpoint, who identified himself only as Lt. Col. Guy.
During the tense encounter Wednesday, soldiers took cover behind concrete barricades and sent a yellow army robot with scissors to the teenager so he could cut off the vest. Before he finally was detained, the youngster was made to strip to his underwear to prove he had no other weapons.
Leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search) militant group denied sending the boy, but local members in Nablus' Balata refugee camp said they did. The group has ties to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
The family of the teenager said he was gullible and easily manipulated.
"He doesn't know anything, and he has the intelligence of a 12-year-old," said his brother, Hosni.
In the newspaper interview, Abdo said he wanted to reach paradise, which he was taught in school was the reward for suicide bombers.
"A river of honey, a river of wine and 72 virgins. Since I have been studying Quran I know about the sweet life that waits there (in Paradise)," the newspaper quoted the boy as saying.
The incident began about 4 p.m. Wednesday when soldiers at the Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus learned a bomber was in the checkpoint. They shut the facility and began searching the hundreds of people gathered there, the military said.
Suddenly Abdo, wearing an oversized red jersey, approached.
"We saw that he had something under his shirt," said Lt. Tamir Milrad.
The soldiers dove behind concrete barricades, pointed their guns at him and ordered him to stop. On their orders, he took off his jersey, revealing a large gray bomb vest underneath.
"He told us he didn't want to die. He didn't want to blow up," Milrad said.
The soldiers sent a small yellow robot to hand Abdo scissors to cut off the vest, an incident captured by Associated Press Television News.
He cut off part of it and struggled with the rest.
"I don't how to get this off," he said in frustration before successfully removing it.
Soldiers ordered him to take off his undershirt and pull down his jeans to make sure he had no other weapons and then arrested him.
Sappers blew up the vest, which the army said was an 18-pound bomb.
Several teenagers have carried out suicide bombings over the past 3 1/2 years of Israeli-Palestinian violence (search), and there has been concern of late that militant groups were turning to younger attackers to fool Israeli security checks.
Abdo, though 16, looked far younger, and the Israeli military initially said he was 10.
On March 16, Israeli troops stopped an 11-year-old boy allegedly trying to smuggle explosives through the same checkpoint. Israel said militants had given the boy the explosives without his knowledge, either to ferry across the checkpoint or to be blown up by remote control when he got near soldiers.
Palestinians and the boy disputed this, claiming the bag he was carrying — swiftly blown up by army sappers — contained auto parts.
Last month, Israeli police arrested three boys, aged 12, 13 and 15, who said they were on their way to carry out a shooting attack in the Israeli city of Afula.
"No matter how many times Israel learns of the use of children for suicide bombings, it is shocking on each occasion," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).
After Wednesday's incident, the army put Abdo before the media for photographs. He was allowed only to say his name, age and grade in school.
Abdo's family said the teenager was not affiliated with any militant group, but went to rallies conducted by all of them. They said he identified with whichever group carried out the latest attack on Israelis.
His mother, Tamam, was furious at the militants who sent him.
"He is a child and he should not be used for such things," the mother said.
The family said Abdo acted strangely Tuesday, giving out candy to his family and neighbors and refusing to explain why.
He got his hair cut in the style his mother likes and told her he would do anything she wanted, she said.
"You never are like this," she said. "What happened?"
"I just want you to be happy with me," he responded.
He left his house Wednesday morning, saying he was going to school. But he never went there.
Hosni Abdo, the brother, said he was angry with whoever persuaded his brother to become a suicide bomber.
"The ones who sent him are stupid, because the army will give him two slaps and he will tell them who sent him," he said.