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Explosion at Jerusalem bus stop kills 1, wounds 38

/ Source: news services

A bomb exploded at a crowded bus stop Wednesday in central Jerusalem, killing one woman and wounding 38 in what appeared to be the first militant attack in the city in several years.

The blast could be heard throughout Jerusalem and blew out the windows of two crowded buses.

No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, which coincided with an upsurge of violence on the Gaza border that has led to fears of a new war between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. Israeli police blamed Palestinian militants, calling the blast a "terrorist" attack.

A woman died of wounds from the explosion, Israel Radio reported. Israel's national rescue service said 15 people were seriously wounded, several critically. Rescuers were seen removing bloodied people from the area on stretchers.

Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel's minister of public security, said militants planted a 2-pound device in a bag on the sidewalk. An Israeli Embassy official in Washington told NBC News that it appeared the bomb was placed in a phone booth next to the bus stop. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also believed it to be a terrorist attack.

Meir Hagid, one of the bus drivers, said he heard a loud explosion as he drove by the site, located near the main entrance to Jerusalem and its central bus station.

"I heard the explosion in the bus stop," he said. He halted his vehicle and people got off. He said nobody in his bus was hurt.

Israeli paramedics and emergency services rush to the scene of a a massive bus explosion outside the Jerusalem's central bus station on March 23, 2011. AFP PHOTO/MARINA PASSOS (Photo credit should read MARINA PASSOS/AFP/Getty Images)Marina Passos / AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed a trip to Russia after the bombing, his office said. He had been scheduled to hold talks with Russian leaders in Moscow on Wednesday and return on Thursday.

Jerusalem suffered dozens of suicide bombings that targeted buses and restaurants during the second Palestinian uprising last decade. But the attacks were halted in recent years. Jerusalem last experienced a suicide bombing in 2004.

The bombing came amid rising tensions between Israel and the Hamas militant group.

World leaders condemned the bombing, as well as a barrage of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza in recent days.

"The United States calls on the groups responsible to end these attacks at once and we underscore that Israel, like all nations, has a right to self-defense," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement released in Washington.

Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, who are opposed to Hamas, also denounced the attack.

"I condemn this terrorist operation in the strongest possible terms, regardless of who was behind it," Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in a statement.

At the height of a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, but which died out in recent years, militants carried out dozens of often-deadly bombings in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Peace impassePeace talks aimed at ending the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians broke down last year after Netanyahu refused to extend a partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Israeli security officials have cautioned that the absence of any peace initiative could spark a new Palestinian uprising. More than 500 Israeli civilians died in 140 Palestinian suicide bomb attacks from 2000 to 2007. More than 4,500 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the same period.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Cairo, denounced what he called "a horrific terrorist attack" but said he did not think the situation in Israel was deteriorating.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby urged Israel to show restraint and said no one should give it an excuse to use violence — an apparent reference to Palestinian militants.

Tuesday, Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip killed four Palestinian civilians, including three children playing football, and five militants, medical officials said.

Netanyahu has voiced regret for the civilian deaths but said Israel could not ignore attacks on its territory.

"It could be that this matter will entail exchanges of blows, and it may take a certain period of time, but we are very determined to strike at the terrorist elements and deny them the means of attacking our citizens," he told parliament.

Israel launched a three-week war on the impoverished coastal enclave in 2009, killing about 1,400 Palestinians and drawing heavy international censure. Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in a 2007 coup, had mostly held fire since.