Jordan closes HQ of Hamas militants

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The Independent Online
JORDAN STRUCK a serious blow at Hamas, the militant Islamic Palestinian group, by closing its offices in Amman last night and issuing arrest warrants for some of its members.

Hamas, which has killed scores of Israelis in suicide bomb attacks, has long used the Jordanian capital as a headquarters. Some of its most radical leaders, who advocate military action against Israel, also live in Amman. "These offices were raided today and we have found that laws were broken - therefore these offices were closed," a government insider said.

Hamas is the most powerful Palestinian group opposed to peace talks with Israel. It confirmed that its offices had been taken over by Jordanian security forces. The move against Hamas came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tried to resolve last-minute differences over the Wye peace accord.

An agreement on the accord is due to be signed by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, in Alexandria on Thursday.

Hamas has launched few attacks against Israeli targets in the past 10 months, but in recent weeks there have been a series of ambushes and shootings. Izz al-Din al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, is reported to be rebuilding its organisation after a number of its leaders were killed by Israeli undercover agents.

The pretext for closing the Hamas offices is that they were registered as business offices but were being used for political activities. But Hamas spokesmen in Amman have frequently called for armed attacks on Israel. The Hamas representatives in the Jordanian capital - Khalid Meshal, Mohammed Nazal and Ibrahim Ghosheh - are said by government sources to be out of the country.

Khalid Meshal was the target of a failed assassination attempt by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, in 1997 when Israeli agents tried to kill him with a slow-acting poison as he entered his office in Amman. The agents were pursued by his bodyguard and held until Israel supplied an antidote and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader in jail in Israel, was released. Israel had long asked Jordan to close down the Hamas offices, but without success. Both Israel and the United States wanted to keep on good terms with the late King Hussein of Jordan and did not press the issue.

If Jordan has definitely broken with Hamas and arrested some of its officials, the move will seriously damage the organisation, which has been relentlessly harried by Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Gaza since 1996.

Suicide bombs in that year killed more than 60 Israelis and were decisive in winning the Israeli election for Benjamin Netanyahu.

There have long been open differences between the leaders of Hamas in Gaza, who want to protect their social and religious institutions, and the more radical leaders based in Amman, who advocate armed struggle.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators failed yesterday to bridge differences blocking an agreement implementing the Wye Agreement.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said: "Gaps still remain. We're still exerting maximum effort, but these issues do not require negotiations. It requires decisions from President Arafat and Mr Barak."

The chief stumbling blocks remaining are the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released and the timing of the start of the so-called final status negotiations.

Earlier, Mr Barak said he was optimistic about a deal being signed in Alexandria on Thursday in the presence of President Mubarak and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. Mr Barak said: "I believe the prospects are more than 50-50."