10.30 am

JERUSALEM - A Palestinian suicide bomber has killed at least 15 people, including six children, and wounded about 90 when he detonated a nail-packed bomb in a Jerusalem restaurant crowded with families.

The worst bomb blast in Jerusalem since the Palestinian revolt began more than 10 months ago ripped apart the Sbarro pizza restaurant during the busy lunch hour on Thursday (early Friday morning NZT), hurling glass, metal and bodies on to the street.

Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said 18 people had been killed but police later revised the toll down to 15.


Two militant Muslim groups, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, claimed responsibility, saying the bombing avenged an Israeli missile strike that killed eight Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus on July 31, including two Hamas leaders.

"All the glass blew out - boom. I saw two dead people, one with brains spilling out of his head, another with blood pouring out of his nose," said 16-year-old Eliezer Vanzoari.

"I started to help move the people, I was shaking all over," he added, blood covering his arms.

Bodies were left strewn over the pavement. One woman, blood spattering her face and arms, watched the ambulance workers in shock as she dabbed herself with a cloth.

Using tweezers, ultra-Orthodox body collectors picked human flesh off two baby carriages sitting on the pavement outside the pizza restaurant, which was shattered by the explosion.

It was the deadliest attack since a suicide bomber killed 21 people at a Tel Aviv disco on June 1 and both sides accepted a US-brokered ceasefire, which has failed to end the fighting.

"Yasser Arafat utterly failed to fulfil the terms of this ceasefire and as a result we have 18 Israelis dead," Gold said, blaming the attack on the Palestinian president's policies.

Gold did not say how Israel would respond to the bombing but added: "It's the role of the government of Israel to defend the people of Israel and I'm sure that's precisely what Israel will do now."

Palestinian leaders blamed the attack on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own tough policies. Sharon was due to meet his defence minister to consider a response. He has ordered military strikes after such attacks in the past.

Police said the bomb was large and spewed out nails and other shrapnel which doctors in local hospitals reported were embedded in the bodies of many of the wounded.

Bodies lay sprawled on the ground after the blast. Many of the wounded were covered in blood and their clothes had been blown off their bodies from the blast.

The front of the restaurant was blown out, with its red, green and white signs hanging limply from the front. Shattered glass and twisted metal covered the ground.

"We saw bodies thrown all over the floor and people ran into my store dripping with blood," said Nava Perry from a shop nearby.

"I saw bodies inside the restaurant and the body of a little girl on the street covered in blood. Bodies were all over inside and outside," she added.

Naor Shara, a soldier who was walking by at the time, said: "The worst thing I saw, which I think will haunt me all my life, is a baby that was sitting in a stroller outside a shop and was dead. After the explosion, the baby's mother came out of the store and started screaming hysterically."

A crowd of angry Israelis gathered outside the restaurant later, some of them chanting: "Death to Arabs."

The blast dealt another blow to already slim hopes of ending violence that flared when the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip erupted last September after peace talks became deadlocked.

Within hours of the attack, Palestinian gunmen killed two Israelis, one of them a soldier, in separate shootings in the West Bank.

The events deepened a cycle of violence that has killed more than 650 people including over 500 Palestinians and about 150 Israelis.

Israel has often responded to attacks with military strikes against Palestinian security targets and with attacks on militants it accuses of plotting bombings.

Palestinian officials said police stations had been evacuated in Gaza City, and in Ramallah and Bethlehem in the West Bank. Security targets in these cities have been struck by Israeli missiles after earlier bomb attacks.

The international community has condemned the bomb attacks as well as the Israeli killings of militants, and urged both sides to end the violence and resume negotiations.

In Crawford, Texas, where President George W. Bush is on a month-long vacation, a White House official said the US leader "strongly deplores" the violence. A State Department official said the United States expected the Palestinian Authority to take "resolute action" to prevent further bombings.

"We are looking for actions from the Palestinians - to do anything they can on those responsible," the official said.

The European Union, Russia and Egypt joined the United States in condemning the bombing. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called it disgraceful.

The Palestinian news agency WAFA said US Secretary of State Colin Powell had spoken to Arafat after the bombing but did not say what he told the Palestinian leader.