JERUSALEM — A Palestinian man plowed an enormous construction vehicle into cars, buses and pedestrians on a busy street Wednesday, killing at least three people and injuring at least 45 before he was shot dead by an off-duty soldier.
Traffic was halted and hundreds of people fled in panic through the streets in the heart of downtown Jerusalem as medics treated the injured.
Three Palestinian militant groups took responsibility for the attack, but Israeli police referred to the attacker as a "terrorist" acting on his own.
The attack took place in front of a building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media outlets. A TV camera captured the huge front loader crushing a vehicle and an off-duty soldier killing the perpetrator by shooting him in the head several times at point-blank range as onlookers screamed.
A half-dozen cars were flattened and others were overturned by the Caterpillar vehicle. A bus was overturned and another bus was heavily damaged. Israel's national rescue service confirmed three deaths, and the bodies lay motionless on the ground covered in plastic.
A woman sprinkled water over a baby's bloodied face, a rescue worker stroked the hair of a dazed elderly pedestrian and a loved one raised the bleeding leg of a woman sitting outside the overturned bus.
"I saw the bulldozer smash the car with its shovel. He smashed the guy sitting in the driver's seat," said Yaakov Ashkenazi, an 18-year-old seminary student.
'Miracle that I got out of there'
Esther Valencia, a 52-year-old pedestrian said she barely escaped the carnage.
"He almost hit me. Someone pushed me out of the way at the last moment. It was a miracle that I got out of there."
Eyal Lang Ben-Hur, 16, was in the bus when the driver yelled out, "Get out of the vehicle! Everyone out!" People fled in a panic, he said, and the bus was hit an instant later.
The attack occurred in an area where Jerusalem is building a new train system. The project has turned many parts of the city into a construction zone.
Wednesday's attack represented a departure from militants' previous methods, which were mostly suicide bombings and shootings.
3 groups claim responsibility
During the second Palestinian uprising, which erupted in late 2000, Jerusalem experienced dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks. The city has been largely quiet in the past three years, though sporadic attacks have persisted. In March, a Palestinian gunman entered a Jerusalem seminary and killed eight young students.
The three organizations that took responsibility for the attack included the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which is affiliated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The other two are the Galilee Freedom Battalion, which is suspected of being affiliated with Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a fringe left-wing militant group.
The Hamas militant group, which runs the Gaza Strip and is currently maintaining a fragile cease-fire with Israel, said it did not carry out the attack but nevertheless praised it.
"We consider it as a natural reaction to the daily aggression and crimes committed against our people in the West Bank and all over the occupied lands," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Despite the Palestinian claims of responsibility, Israeli police chief Dudi Cohen said the attacker appeared to be acting alone.
"It looks as if it was a spontaneous act," he said.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat condemned the violence.
"We condemn any attacks that target civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinians, and President Abbas has been consistent in his position to condemn any attacks, including the one in west Jerusalem, that target civilians," he said.
Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the man was an Arab from east Jerusalem and had a criminal background. Channel 1 TV, citing police, reported that the attacker, a man in his 30s, worked for a construction contractor. Police chief Cohen said the attacker was the father of two children.
In contrast to West Bank Palestinians, Arab residents of Jerusalem have full freedom to work and travel throughout Israel. Many Jerusalem Arabs work in the construction industry, possibly helping the attacker to easily gain control of a construction vehicle.
About two-thirds of Jerusalem's 700,000 residents are Jews, and the rest are Palestinians who came under Israeli control when Israel captured their part of the city in 1967. Jerusalem's Arabs are not Israeli citizens but hold Israeli ID cards that allow them freedom of movement in the city and throughout Israel.
Broken glass and blood stains
Israel's national rescue service said at least 45 people were injured in Wednesday's attack. At one point, a paramedic lowered a screaming baby into an ambulance.
Injured people sat dazed on the ground amid piles of broken glass and blood stains on the street. A baby had blood all over its face, and the driver of the construction vehicle was slumped motionless over the steering wheel.
"Where's the baby? Where's the baby?" said one distraught man as he ran from the overturned bus.
'I saw a guy going crazy'
Yosef Spielman, who witnessed the attack, said the construction vehicle picked up a car "like a toy."
"I was shocked. I saw a guy going crazy," he said. "All the people were running. They had no chance."
At one point, witnesses said a female traffic cop shot at the perpetrator, after which he slumped over with his eyes closed. Then he suddenly lifted himself back up and continued his rampage, the witnesses said.
Attacker armed with gun
Hen Shimon, a 19-year-old solider, said the whole scene was a "nightmare."
"I just got off the bus and I saw the tractor driving and knocking everything down in his path," she said. "Everything he saw he rammed. He had a gun and started shooting at a police officer."
Cassia Pereira, office manager for AP's Jerusalem bureau, watched the attack unfold outside her window.
"I saw him but it was too late and there was nothing to do," she said, with tears in her eyes. "I was in panic I couldn't say a word ... I realized something was not normal, something was wrong."
The mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, said his daughter was on one of the buses rammed by the attacker, but was not injured.
"To our regret the attackers do not cease coming up with new ways to strike at the heart of the Jewish people here in Jerusalem," Lupolianski said.
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