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A gunman entered a famous Jewish seminary in the heart of Jerusalem on Thursday night, killing at least eight students and wounding at least nine others, three of them seriously, the Israeli police said.

In a scene of havoc and confusion while the students prayed, the gunman killed two people at the entrance to the Mercaz Harav yeshiva and then entered the first-floor library, spraying Kalashnikov rifle fire into the students there, according to the Israeli police.

The gunman, who has not yet been identified, was thought to be either a Palestinian or an Israeli Arab living inside Jerusalem. The dead were thought to be mostly between 20 and 30 years of age.

It was the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in nearly two years and the first attack inside Jerusalem in four years. It occurred at the start of the Hebrew month in which the Purim holiday occurs, and many of the witnesses said that at first they thought the gunfire was firecrackers in celebration.

Only one gunman appeared to be involved, and he was killed at the scene by a part-time student and security officers.

But the attack came at a time of increased Israeli-Palestinian tension, after a spate of violence in the Gaza Strip. Thursday’s killings drew criticism from President Bush and the United Nations and are bound to put more pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to respond with force. The violence Gaza has led to unrest in the occupied West Bank as well and further complicated the political situation for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.

Abbas originally suspended contacts and peace talks with Israel indefinitely; after a plea from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to keep talking, he agreed on Wednesday to return to negotiations, but refused to say when.

Abbas condemned Thursday’s shootings.

In Gaza, the radical Islamic movement Hamas did not take responsibility for Thursday’s attack in Jerusalem but praised it. In a text message, Hamas said: “We bless the operation. It will not be the last.”

Mark Regev, spokesman for Olmert, said that “tonight’s massacre in Jerusalem is a defining moment.” He said that “the same warped and extremist ideology behind tonight’s massacre is also behind the daily rocket barrages in the south.”