|JERUSALEM (AFP) - A powerful suicide bomb tore through
a bus in central Jerusalem on Tuesday, killing 20 passengers,
wounding 120 people and blowing apart already shaky efforts to
implement a US-backed peace plan.
Israeli officials said they were suspending all contacts with the
Palestinians after the evening blast, which left several children
among the dead and about 40 youngsters among the wounded.
The blast devastated a bus packed with Israelis returning home
from work and worshippers from the famed Wailing Wall in the
deadliest Palestinian attack in more than seven months.
It also drove a final nail into a fragile seven-week-old
ceasefire declared by the militants and drove tensions to a new peak
just as Israel was set to pull back from two more Palestinian towns
on the West Bank.
Police said 20 passengers and the bomber were killed in the blast
that went off shortly after 9.00 pm (2.00 am Wednesday Brunei Time)
in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood. Several children were
among them, including an 18-month-old baby.
Mazal Zaken, 62, who lives in a house opposite from the
explosion, said she was rocked by the blast that tore a hole in the
roof of the bus, blew out its windows and hurled a chunk of the
vehicle into her yard.
"I started screaming and went outside and saw people running in
all directions covered in blood," Zaken said. "I will never forget
Pinchas Krainer, 57, was attending a Bar Mitzvah for his nephew
in a nearby municipal hall when he heard the blast and saw children
who had been playing outside run back inside in panic.
"They told us they saw bodies flying. I ran outside and was
gripped by the smell of charred flesh," he told AFP.
Israeli authorities said 120 people were taken to hospital,
including 14 in serious condition, after the bombing which damaged a
tourist bus in front of the stricken vehicle and a car behind it.
Police said the suicide bomber was carrying a "large" explosive
device when he mounted the bus. They were investigating reports he
may have been dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
It was the bloodiest assault since two suicide bombs killed 23
people in Tel Aviv on January 5. The smoke had barely settled when
the political tremors started rumbling in.
Israel had been set to hand over control of the West Bank towns
of Jericho and Qalqilya to the Palestinians, but suspended the move
and imposed a strict cordon around all Palestinian territories after
the blast, its army radio said.
Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the foreign ministry,
said that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had also decided to break off
the dialogue with the Palestinians.
"Based on the horrifying terror attack tonight and that the
Palestinians did nothing whatsoever (against the militants), Prime
Minister Sharon has decided to suspend all contacts with the
Palestinians for the time being," he said.
The bombing occurred five days after Islamic Jihad vowed to
avenge the killing of one of its local commanders in the southern
West Bank city of Hebron. Hamas named the bomber as a 25-year-old
teacher from the southern West Bank town.
The White House led international condemnation of the attack,
describing it as a "vicious act" and calling on the Palestinian
Authority to step up efforts to dismantle violent militant groups.