Hamas chief dies in Israeli helicopter attack

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The Independent Online

Israeli helicopter gunships killed a Hamas commander and three of his fighters in a missile strike on Gaza City last night. Three passers-by were also wounded.

Palestinian witnesses named the dead as Ahmad Ishtaiwe, 25, a senior officer in Hamas' Unit 103, which has frequently attacked Israeli tanks, and Wahid al-Hams, Ahmad Abu Hilaleh and Ahmad Abu Libdeh, all in their early twenties. The attack came three days after a similar raid that killed Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior Hamas political leader.

According to Jihad Meqdad, who was lightly injured, the four gunmen were driving in a Mercedes near the headquarters of Force 17, Yasser Arafat's presidential guard. When they heard the two attack helicopters approaching, they ran from the car and hid behind roadside trees.

The helicopters fired four rockets, killing them instantly. Angry crowds, vowing revenge, gathered outside the hospital where their bodies were taken.

The attack came at the end of a day when Palestinian security forces began clamping down on the militants. They sealed five tunnels used for smuggling weapons across the Rafah border from Egypt and arrested a dozen suspected smugglers. The Gaza security chief, General Abdel Razek al-Majaydeh, said he had been ordered to "maintain security and stability in all border areas and prevent violations".

None the less, militants fired a Qassam rocket six kilometres into southern Israel, landing on the Zikim beach, south of the resort town of Ashkelon, the farthest a Qassam has penetrated into Israel.

On the West Bank, Israeli troops destroyed an explosives laboratory in Nablus and displayed a captured Qassam rocket, the first hard evidence that they were being manufactured in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Defence Minister, dismissed the Palestinian security measures as "too little, too late". Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, the chief of staff, told Israel Radio that all Hamas leaders were candidates for "liquidation" after last Tuesday's Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 20 Israelis and a Filipino care worker. He hinted that Israel might also attack exiled Hamas leaders in Damascus.