Thirty people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in Baghdad yesterday, underscoring the endemic insecurity plaguing Iraq just a week before a crucial general election.
Amid mounting appeals for the release of a string of foreigners abducted in Iraq, kidnappers holding four Western peace activists extended a threatened deadline for their murder until tomorrow.
The so-called Brigades of the Swords of Righteousness said it had delayed by two days an ultimatum that expired yesterday for London and Washington to release all prisoners held in Iraqi and coalition prisons.
The resurgent hostage crisis - which has seen seven Westerners seized in two weeks - exposes the insecurity rampant since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 despite the December 15 polls.
In Baghdad, 30 civilians were killed and 25 wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself just as a bus was drawing out of a bus station in the Iraqi capital en route for the southern Shiite town of Nassiriyah, officials said.
The bus was completely destroyed in the blast and two nearby stalls selling food and drinks were gutted as the explosion sent shrapnel flying into the air.
"Some bodies were charred because the bus was completely burnt," said a police official.
Blood covered the ground and pieces of shrapnel were littered across the area, as Iraqi rescue workers frantically dragged bodies out of the wreckage and a column of black smoke snaked into the sky.
With fears of mounting chaos ahead of the December 15 vote, Iraq has imposed a 30-day state of emergency in the restive provinces of Al-Anbar and Nineveh, and shut the border with Syria to all but authorized commercial traffic.
The U.N. chief's special representative to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, expressed "serious concern" over election-related violence ahead of the polls.
Relatives, political and religious leaders from across the world have begged for the release of the four Christian activists, a German mother, a French engineer and an American who have gone missing in Iraq in the past two weeks.
Late Wednesday, a grainy video broadcast on Al-Jazeera television showed images of two presumed hostages with their hands in chains.
The Arabic satellite station said they were British grandfather Norman Kember and American Tom Fox - kidnapped in Baghdad on November 26 with Canadians, James Loney, 41 and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32.
All four were working in Iraq for the Christian Peacemakers Team.
In the third such Iraq crisis for London following the abduction and murder of two other nationals, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stepped up appeals for the release of the hostages.
"If the kidnappers want to get in touch with us, we want to hear what they have to say. We have people in Iraq and the region and they are ready to hear from the kidnappers," he said.
Just days after a Sunni Arab extremist group claimed to have kidnapped an American hostage, a U.S. man told a local newspaper that the blond man shown in a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera was almost certainly his brother.
"They're 90 percent sure it's him. I've seen the video, and I'm convinced it's him," Ed Schulz, 42, told the local In Forum newspaper.
The Al-Jazeera video showed the cover of a U.S. passport and a bank card with the name of Ronald Schulz.
Fears are also growing for a German woman who went missing nearly two weeks ago, with the government in Berlin admitting it had no news of her fate.
Susanne Osthoff, a Muslim convert who was doing aid work, was snatched in northern Iraq on November 25 with her local driver.