Suicide bomber strikes near Sharon's residence

But German-brokered prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah goes ahead

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew up on a bus in Jerusalem today, killing 10 bystanders and wounding at least 50 in the deadliest attack in four months. The blast went off outside the official residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The bombing coincided with a German-brokered prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, but Israel said the exchange was going ahead as planned. Nevertheless the bombing dealt a further setback to stalled peace efforts.

The bomber detonated the explosives just before 9 a.m. (7am GMT) in the Rehavia district in downtown Jerusalem, just 15 yards from Sharon's official residence, although he was away at the time.

Police said the explosion went off in the middle or back of the crowded bus and was so powerful that body parts flew into nearby houses. The explosion also sent a chunk of the bus roof onto the roof of a nearby two-storey building.

Eli Beer, a paramedic, said victims had been scattered over a wide area.

Police investigators with sniffer dogs searched the bus. Paramedics were taking away the wounded on stretchers. Others were treated at the scene. People, dazed and crying, wandered around the area.

The last attack in Israel was a suicide bombing at a bus stop outside of Tel Aviv on 25 December that killed four people. Israeli officials said the weeks of calm preceding the bombing were a result of Israeli security measures, not a reduction in violence on the Palestinian side.

The blast came a time of renewed efforts to bring about a cease-fire. Earlier this week, senior Egyptian officials had tried to win a pledge from Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israelis.

Palestinian Authority officials condemned the bombing, while also denouncing the deaths of nine Palestinians yesterday during fighting with Israeli troops in Gaza. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia appealed "to all parties to stop this bloody series of violence," declare a cease-fire and resume the road map.

Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, stopped short of claiming responsibility on behalf of his group, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings, was responsible. He said: "It's not important who carried out this operation. The only thing which is very important is that we are resisting occupiers who came ... to occupy our land and to kill our people."

Meanwhile at a German air base, Israel today confirmed the identities of the remains of three of its soldiers, clearing the way for a complex prisoner swap with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

Under the German-brokered deal, Israel is to release a total of 436 prisoners in exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the soldiers.

Israel was to release about 36 prisoners from Arab countries in Germany and free 400 Palestinian prisoners into the West Bank and Gaza. It also was to turn over the remains of 59 Lebanese militants at its northern border with Lebanon.

Tannenbaum had been flown to Germany early Thursday from Lebanon with the soldiers' remains, while Israel sent a plane with the 36 prisoners.

The guerrilla group had seized Tannenbaum and the soldiers in separate incidents in October 2000.

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