18-year-old bride-to-be kills two in suicide attack

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IN A recorded video message Aayat Mohammed al-Akhras condemned Arab leaders for "watching while Palestinian women" fought Israeli occupation. Then the teenager, from the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, found her way to a supermarket in suburban Jerusalem and blew herself up.

The 18-year-old detonated an explosive-laden belt she was wearing, but a mortar shell she was carrying in her handbag failed to explode.

Aayat Akhras killed two other people besides herself and wounded at least 20 others. She left a trail of death, injury and terror among families shopping with their small children. Many more would have died, police said yesterday, but for the bravery of a security guard who pushed her out of the building. He was thought to have died after the blast severed his legs.

A quiet, diligent schoolgirl, Akhras had never talked of joining the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia affiliated with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. A classmate, Rania Abdullah, said she had seen Akhras yesterday morning in the streets of the Dheisheh camp, never guessing where her friend was heading.

"It was about 8:30am. She said ‘Hi’, and then I continued walking," Miss Abdullah said.

But she added: "It was a courageous act and all of us wish to be in her shoes," as other friends hugged pictures of the girl to their chests.

Nobody had been more in the dark over Akhras’s plans then her fiance, Shadi Abu Laban. He spent Thursday evening at her family’s home and listened as his bride-to-be spoke of the different exams she was preparing for, and their marriage plans. She was determined to finish school before marrying, her family said.

"I will never forget her, she will always stay alive inside my heart," Abu Laban said yesterday, his voice shaking.

There have been about 50 suicide bombings during the Palestinian uprising, but yesterday’s attack was only the second carried out by a woman. A fellow al-Aqsa Brigades member, Darin Abu Eisha, 22, blew herself up at an Israeli security checkpoint in the West Bank in late February, wounding three policemen.

Yesterday’s huge blast rocked the large supermarket in the working-class Kiryat Yovel district as many Israelis were doing their shopping before the Jewish Sabbath.

One shopper told Israel Radio: "The blast was huge. She was a few metres from the entrance inside."

Akhras’s was the second Palestinian suicide bombing since Wednesday’s start of the Jewish Passover holiday, which commemorates the biblical exodus of Jews from Egypt.

A Palestinian bomber killed at least 22 Israelis celebrating the start of Passover in a hotel in the coastal city of Netanya on Wednesday. Yesterday’s blast came as Israeli forces entered Ramallah, pledging to crack down on militants.

The blast sprayed glass and debris on to the street and brought police and rescue workers rushing to the scene.

Witnesses said three torn bodies lay near the market entrance in a heap of debris. There was black soot from bags of charcoal that were out for sale and pools of white paint that sprayed from a destroyed store display of buckets of house paint. Flowers a vendor had been selling were strewn in front of the supermarket.

A man covered in the white paint sat on the steps outside the shopping center, crying and hugging two small children.

Hanna Cohen, a witness who spoke to Israel Radio, said she had been about to enter the store when there had been "a huge blast, and I saw people flying all around, arms and legs".

Avraham Ben-Yakov, a 38-year-old doctor, had gone to the store with his wife to do some shopping. Ben-Yakov remembered telling the security guard as they entered that he was doing an important job. Just a few steps behind the doctor, the woman bomber approached the guard.

"I saw a very intense explosion with dark smoke," Mr Ben-Yakov said. "People started running, crying."

Rushing to help the wounded, Mr Ben-Yakov found the young security guard barely breathing, both of his legs severed. "He lost all of the blood," he said.

The bomber’s body was torn to pieces.

As word of the bombing spread through the Dheisheh refugee camp, some residents celebrated, handing out confectionery to passers-by and firing guns into the air.

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