JERUSALEM -- A Palestinian man detonated nail-studded explosives on a Jerusalem bus crowded with high school students and office workers Tuesday, killing himself and 19 passengers in the city's deadliest suicide attack in six years. Fifty-five people were wounded.
The extremist Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack -- the 69th Palestinian suicide bombing in 21 months.
It was not clear whether the attack would delay plans by President Bush to issue a major Mideast policy statement, which had been expected by Wednesday. Bush condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
The blast tore through the bus just before 8 a.m., sending bodies flying through windows and peeling off the roof and sides. Rescue workers later lined up the dead on a sidewalk and covered them with black plastic bags. "Where is my sister? Where is my sister?" a woman screamed at volunteers collecting remains.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rushed to the scene and vowed to fight Palestinian terror groups, then convened security chiefs for emergency consultations. Sharon held Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat responsible for continued attacks.
Tough Israeli retaliation was expected, but Israeli commentators said they believed Israel would stop short of expelling Arafat. Earlier this month, Israeli troops blew up buildings in the Palestinian leader's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah in response to a suicide attack that killed 17 Israelis. In Ramallah, Palestinians began hoarding food in anticipation of an Israeli raid.
Arafat's Palestinian Authority condemned the attack, and said in a statement it would do everything it could to "find and stop anyone attempting to carry out operations."
Hamas identified the assailant as Mohammed al-Ghoul, 22, from the Al Faraa refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus.
A Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said Hamas was ready to stop attacks if Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "We don't have the power to liberate all of Palestine (with such attacks)," Rantisi said. Hamas leaders in the past have said their main goal is Israel's destruction.
Tuesday's explosion went off as the bus waited at a crowded intersection in southern Jerusalem. Shlomi Kalderon, 32, had just dropped his children off at kindergarten and was two cars behind the bus at the time of the blast.
"All the pieces went flying up into the air," Kalderon said from a Jerusalem hospital where he was being treated for whistling in his ears. "People from the cars behind me came running up to the bus and started pulling people out of the windows. They didn't save many. ... I saw a head next to me after the blast."
A tent was set up at the scene where body parts would be identified.
Michael Lasri, 15, said he saw the bomber, a slightly heavy man in a red shirt, board the bus he was riding.
"I saw him for only a few seconds, from the moment he got on the bus till the moment he blew himself up," Lasri, who suffered cuts and bruises, said from a hospital bed. "I saw a lot of bodies and body parts lying around. There was a lot of mess."
Police said 20 people, including the bomber, were killed and about 55 injured. It was the first suicide bombing in Jerusalem since April 12, and the deadliest attack in the city since Feb. 25, 1996, when 26 people were killed in a bus explosion. Jerusalem has been hardest hit by the current wave of Palestinian suicide attacks.
In the past 21 months of fighting, 547 people have been killed on the Israeli side and 1,712 people on the Palestinian side. For the first time since September 2000, there were more Israeli than Palestinians killed over a specific period -- 43 Israelis slain so far in June, compared to 34 Palestinians.
Levy said several of those killed were young people, adding that police had warnings about additional suicide attackers having reached the city. The explosion went off near a high school, and many of the passengers were students.
Earlier this week, Israel began constructing a fence that is to keep out suicide bombers. The fence is to run largely along the so-called Green Line, Israel's frontier before it captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war. However, construction of the first stretch, to run along one-third of the Green Line, is not expected to be completed for nine months.
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