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Middle East terrorism returns to capital: Car-bomb explosion at Israeli embassy sends hail of razor-sharp shards flying across exclusive South Kensington residential area

COMMANDER David Tucker, the head of Scotland Yard's terrorist branch, took five hours from the time of the blast to state that Middle East terrorism had returned to the streets of London.

For those in the immediate vicinity - who had been deafened, shaken, covered in flying glass and dust, or feared their time had come - it may have taken only a few seconds to realise that London's embassy heartland with its select royal residences was, again, not always a safe place to be.

The bomb went off at 12.10pm. The explosion sent razor-sharp shards flying across the roads around the Israeli embassy. Eyewitnesses described how, seconds after the huge noise, heard miles away, black billowing smoke appeared and confirmed their worst fears.

'They've hit Kensington Palace,' was the initial fear of Chris Hamer, owner of a nearby art gallery. Others had a more direct experience. Glass shopfronts were blown out of local shops, staff were quickly evacuated. Amanda Wills, manager of Monsoon in Kensington Church Street, said: 'We knew right away it was a bomb.'

An American tourist, David Bergstrom, walking out of Kensington High Steet tube station, was knocked off his feet. 'We came for a holiday. We never expected this,' he said.

Backing on to the Israeli complex is Ashbourne Tutorial College. Summer biology revision for 15-year-old Adam Walford, turned into an explosion of glass into the classroom. Pupils were treated for minor cuts.

Those nearest the bomb - the staff inside the embassy - made their way out, dazed, through the security gates at the top of Kensington Palace Gardens. There was a clear sense that somehow they had cheated death.

Ruby Cohen, 22, a secretary on the first floor of the consulate said: 'I was sitting in the office and there was no warning, nothing. There was a bang. The whole building jolted. There was shouting and some screaming but things seemed calm. We just knew it was a car.'

Staff slowly emerged from the now cordoned-off private embassy road. Some had blood running from cuts to the sides of their faces, the tops of their heads, blood running off their hands. One man who kept asking police about his wife - 'My wife is in there, she's in there' - nearly crushed her with affection when she miraclously appeared behind him in a crowd of media confusion.

Commander Tucker and his staff appeared astonished that no one had been killed. If not miracles, then sheer luck was responsible for the fact there were no deaths.

An Irish scaffolder was blown across a road by the force of the blast. Maurice Murphy discharged himself two hours later from Charing Cross hospital. He had been blown into the street and glass had rained down on him. He said that when he looked up, all he could see was a car torn apart and still in flames.

Another witness, Desmond Warren, said the explosion had left the car lying across a pavement. Inside the Israeli embassy, the damage was extensive. An astonishly calm second secretary, Amir Amimon, described the staff evacuation as though a light blub had impacted, not 30lb of high explosives.

But a ceiling of the building had collapsed on secretarial staff. Windows had been blown in. The small consulate building to the rear of the embassy was almost destroyed. There were no warnings.

The explosion lasted a split second. But the agony for a young newly-wed couple lasted two hours. They had been working on the newly refurbished embassy, decorating it. Doris Perez, 25, had left her husband at the embassy to buy lunch only seconds before the bomb went off.

She said she saw a woman parking a car between the embassy and a private house next door. 'It was a grey Audi. A security guard immediately became suspicious but the woman walked off.'

She went on: 'I missed the bomb by seconds. I was terrified. There was glass falling all around me but it just missed. I was terrified my husband was dead. I thought for sure he had been killed.'

William Perez, 37, eventually found his wife wandering around dazed near a telephone box where embassy staff were calling relations in Israel to say they had escaped unhurt.

One shouted down the telephone: 'Tell everybody we are all right. We are alive.'

(Photograph omitted)