A BUS was blown up by a bomb in central London last night. There were early reports of three deaths, and eight injured people were taken to hospital. The explosion, nine days after the Docklands attack, had all the hallmarks of yet another IRA atrocity.

No warning was given before the bus was destroyed at 10.40pm at Lancaster Place, Aldwych, near the Strand.

The fact that there had been no warning led to speculation the bomb could have gone off when being transported to an unknown destination.

Before the ceasefire the IRA has attempted to carry devices on London Transport buses.

Witnesses spoke of a massive explosion which left the front of the bus a tangled mess. It is believed 10 people were onboard at the time of the explosion.

Six people, five men and one woman, were taken to St Thomas' Hospital, three with serious head injuries. At least two other casualties were taken to University College Hospital.

One elderly man was visibly shaking as he was taken inside the accident and emergency unit at St Thomas's. Another's shirt was covered in blood as he walked into the unit.

The area was thrown into confusion with windows smashed.

Sections of Covent Garden were sealed off amid fears that there might be other devices in the area.

A London Transport spokesman, who said he understood three people had died, believed the bus was a number 171, New Cross to King's Cross, service, run by London Central under contract to London Transport.

Mr Major was briefed by officials at Downing Street on what MPs on all sides feared could be another devastating blow to the Northern Ireland peace process.

Mr Ken Maginnis, security spokesman for the Ulster Unionists, had little hesitation in pinning the blame on the IRA. ``Until we face up to the reality of what the IRA really are we are going to suffer this type of tragedy again and again.''

Irish Prime Minister Mr John Bruton said he was deeply shocked by the appalling outrage. He utterly condemned those responsible for the explosion.

It was immediately feared in Dublin that the IRA was responsible and that this was confirmation of its determination to escalate its military campaign in London.

The explosion came only hours after Mr Bruton appealed directly to the IRA army council to call off its resumed campaign, which he described as immoral and politically ill-advised.

Last night's incident was only a short distance from the device which was uncovered in central London on Thursday. That incident caused traffic chaos, but the semtex bomb was defused on that occasion.

Two people died and scores were injured in the Docklands blast which marked the end of the IRA ceasefire.

Witnesses described scenes of devastation last night in a city which has now been targeted by the IRA.

Witness Anthony Yates, 26, said: ``I was walking down the road and I saw a big white flash in the sky.

``I looked and then I saw a double-decker bus but there was nothing left of it, it was completely blown to pieces.''

He added: ``When the bomb went off, a taxi drove into the bus.

``The NatWest bank outside is badly hit. The bus driver and the taxi driver both looked dead.''

He said: ``There was a guy lying outside the bus saying `my legs, my legs'. There was another guy with blood coming from his jaw. I ran round to help people and saw him lying down in the road.''

Mr Kevin Mitchell, who was working in Zola's Bar near the blast site, said he rushed out to try to help. ``I saw two people blown apart in the bus. It made me feel quite sick.'' Two more people were unconscious in the street, he said.

``The top of the bus was peeled back like a sardine can.'' He could not believe anyone sitting on the top deck had lived, he told Sky News.

Cab driver Mel Davis, 34, said he was within 20 yards of the bus when the bomb went off. ``I just heard this loud bang and crouched under my steering wheel, there was glass showered everywhere and it caused a lot of damage to my cab.

``I saw one guy, he must have been within yards of the bomb itself in the bus, just walk out of the bus through the hole which the bomb caused.

``It was quite unbelievable he survived and was able to walk away, I reckon he won the lottery.''

Mr Davis paid tribute to the bravery of Solicitor Raymond Levy, who stopped to help. ``That bloke was just unbelievable, he walked onto the bus and tried to stop the engine and then went under the bonnet and stopped it running that way.''

Mr Levy had been in his car only 30ft away from the blast.

``I thought there was only the bus driver on board and when I got out of the car and got to the bus, he had got out but there were flames everywhere,'' he said. ``The engine was still running and I was very worried that the petrol would explode.

``With the help of a cab driver we undid the bonnet of the bus and turned the engine off.''

Five fire engines were sent to the scene and police evacuated the area around the Aldwych.

One of the first on the scene was BBC radio reporter Paul Rowan, who said: ``The entire bus seemed to be blown away. There was metal and glass for around 50 yards all over the place.

``I saw one woman who looked in a very bad way, she was face down on the road with bad-looking head injuries.''

American tourist Scott Grover, 32, from Boston, said: ``We were walking along when we suddenly heard this almighty bang.

``The front of the bus was completely blown away but there didn't seem to be many people in it and I don't know how many were injured.

``There was debris everywhere.''

Canadian law student Mark Johnson, 25, who was drinking with friends in the Wellington pub on the Strand, said: ``I heard a very loud explosion and a very loud bang. We all reacted immediately.

``I saw a woman lying in the street, on the ground, and a great deal of debris and shattered steel.

``We were all in a complete state of panic. We were crouching down away from the windows. We ran outside and asked the bar manager to call the police and ambulance.

``We knew immediately what had happened. We were all saying `oh my God, oh my God'. I don't know where all this hatred comes from.''

He added: ``Many people rushed to the scene to help the injured.

``The police were on the scene almost immediately. We all left the area for fear of secondary devices.

``The bomb was on the bus. It blew the whole of the top deck clean off. It was definitely planted on the top deck. There was no ceiling, no roof.

``There were steel shards coming away from the bus.''

Taxi driver John Jones, who was only 100 yards away from the blast scene, said the explosion appeared to come from the front of the double-decker bus, an old-style London Transport Routemaster.

``There was like a dull thud and suddenly there was nothing left of the bus at all, just a skeleton. It all went up in smoke,'' he said.

``There were two people who I saw who looked badly injured and one of them was the bus driver, who was all covered in blood.''

He added: ``There was one other guy who looked to be in a daze but he just walked off.''

Taxi drivers and motorists were ordered to abandon their vehicles by police, who immediately sealed off the area.

World Service journalist Wu Xiamoning said he was about 25 yards away from the blast as he walked to work at nearby Bush House.

``The front of the bus was completely destroyed.

``You could not recognise that it was a bus from the front,'' he told Sky News.

``Everybody was saying `don't go near it, because there might be another bomb', so we were watching from a distance.

The bus driver, a 50-year-old married man, was taken to hospital with serious injuries, said Mr Robin Young, of London Central Buses. He said their buses carried video cameras, and they would be making the tape available to Scotland Yard.