Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Gunmen kill Gaza leader

ASSAD SAFTAWI, a leading Palestinian moderate in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and close associate of Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was killed by masked Palestinian gunmen in Gaza yesterday. It was the third such assassination since the signing of the 13 September Israeli- PLO peace accord.

The death of Saftawi, 58, a headmaster in a United Nations school, prominent in Palestinian politics for a decade and a highly respected figure on the political scene, raised tension throughout the occupied territories. Clashes were reported in Gaza refugee camps, and the Israeli army increased patrols.

A reminder of the fragility of the accord, Saftawi's death cast gloom over the peace negotiations, under way in the Red Sea resort of Taba, where Israelis and Palestinians are addressing the issue of security after Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip. Palestinian sources do not believe he was assassinated by opponents of the agreement. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which rejects the deal, has publicly said it will not enter into violent conflict with other Palestinians. Some commentators said Saftawi was an unlikely target for Islamic militant groups, as his son, Emad, was at one time a prominent member of Islamic Jihad, another extreme Islamic faction.

Rather, the killing is believed to be the result of a power struggle within Fatah, the mainstream faction in the PLO, which supports the peace accord. Palestinian sources believe the prospect of power being handed to Palestinians in the occupied territories has created bitter tensions, as would-be leaders jostle for position. Mr Arafat will come under pressure swiftly to fill the leadership vacuum opening up in the occupied territories ahead of self- rule, and elections to be held in July.

The first sign of such a struggle came last month with the killing, also in Gaza, of Mohammed Abu Shaaban, another moderate Fatah activist. An associate of Shaaban, Maher Ikhai, was shot dead in Gaza last week.

News of Saftawi's death was given to Mr Arafat as he arrived in Paris for a two-day visit. Faisal Husseini, the de facto Palestinian leader in the occupied territories, who was accompanying Mr Arafat, said the killers must be punished. 'Our people must do everything in its power to prevent such acts,' he said.

Saftawi's killing followed a gruesomely familiar pattern. Just before midday yesterday he was picking up his daughters from school in the Ramal area of Gaza City when two masked men in a Peugeot 404 shot him. He was taken to Gaza's Shifa Hospital, but was dead on arrival. No faction has yet claimed responsibility for the killing.

Saftawi survived an assassination attempt in July 1992 blamed on Hamas.

TABA - Israel and the PLO agreed at talks here yesterday to release a group of Palestinian prisoners by the beginning of next week, according to a joint statement by the negotiators, Reuter reports. It did not say how many of the estimated 9,500 prisoners in Israeli jails would be freed but said they would include sick prisoners, those below the age of 18, those above the age of 50, and women.

Obituary, page 31

(Photograph omitted)