Capture of Hamas 'bomb controller' hailed by army

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"I cocked my gun," says Sergeant Meiri of the moment on Friday night when a man in a car stopped by his patrol in the city of Hebron ignored requests for his identity card and started to walk away. "I yelled at him again to stop and then I saw him draw a gun. I did not hesitate for a minute. I shot at him from a distance of 40-45 metres."

The man disappeared down an alley. Half an hour later Israeli troops raided the Alia hospital in Hebron where they identified a badly wounded man with a bullet in his back as Hassan Salameh, a military leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic movement. Israel says he is the man who organised three suicide bomb attacks in Israel in February and March which killed 43 people.

His capture comes at a convenient moment for the government. In 10 days it faces an election in which the overriding issue will be the its ability to provide security to Israelis. "This relieves the pressure," said Shimon Peres, the prime minister, yesterday. "This man really was a ticking bomb." It is also relevant that Israel has postponed the partial withdrawal of the army from Hebron until after the elections.

The army was also eager to highlight its success though frustrated by its inability to hold a press conference until the end of the Sabbath in order not to offend religious Jews. Dusk fell on Saturday at 8.11pm, an inconvenient time; the main Israeli television news begins at 8pm. But at the instant the Sabbath ended, Brigadier General Uzi Dayan, the military commander of the West Bank, announced to viewers: "We've settled the blood feud."

By the army's account 25-year-old Hassan Abd al-Rahman Salameh, born in Gaza, joined Hamas at an early age during the Palestinian intifada in which he threw stones and disposed of collaborators with Israel. Briefly arrested in 1992 he went to Syria and Sudan where he received training, some of it from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1994 he returned to Gaza and joined the Izzedine al- Qasim brigades, the military wing of Hamas.

Salameh only became important in January this year when he was sent by Mohammed Deif, the head of Izzedine al-Qasim, to the West Bank to organise suicide attacks. He recruited Jamil Abu Warda, a student teacher from al-Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron, who in turn found three young men willing carry out the suicide attacks. In a space of less than two weeks two buses were destroyed along with their passengers on Jaffa road in Jerusalem and a third attack killed a woman soldier near Ashkelon.

Standing in front of maps and aerial photographs of the centre of Hebron, showing the narrow twisting streets, Gen Dayan said the army had no prior intelligence which enabled them to capture Salameh. He hotly denied, however, that it was a matter of luck. He said: "Salameh's capture was achieved because of our massive, 24-hour-a-day security activity." Asked about the seriousness of Salameh's wound he said coldly: "All I care about is whether or not he can talk."

Gen Dayan was more evasive about the background of the driver of the car in which Salameh was a passenger and in which three pistols, some grenades and a submachine gun were discovered. His name is Rafiq Rajoub, a cousin of Colonel Jibril Rajoub, the powerful head of the Palestinian Preventive Security based in Jericho. Gen Dayan dismissed the Col Rajoub connection, saying he had many relatives. However Col Rajoub's brother and nephew were later arrested.

It is a small boost for the government to have caught the man identified as being behind three of the suicide bombs, but it is doubtful if Salameh was as important as it claims. The military wing of Hamas appears to operate through insulated cells rather than a command structure like a regular army.

Meanwhile the Israeli armed forces are at their highest state of alert ever since the foundation of the state in 1948 in case of an attack before election day.