Israelis kill Islamic Jihad commander in gun battle

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Israel was braced for attacks yesterday after special forces killed Islamic Jihad's local commander in a six-hour gun battle in the centre of Hebron.

Sheikh Bassam Sadi, the radical Islamist movement's West Bank leader, warned that the death of Mohammed Sider would "not go unpunished", despite the unilateral ceasefire announced by the Palestinian militias on 29 June. An Islamic Jihad website vowed: "The response will be quick, like an earthquake, and in the depth of the Zionist entity."

An Israeli military spokesman said Mr Sider, 25, was responsible for operations that killed 19 Israelis and injured 82. The army claimed that he was planning another attack soon.

Security sources said Mr Sider received orders from Islamic Jihad's headquarters in Damascus. They said interrogation of captured members of his cell revealed that he had built a bomb-making laboratory. He was also said to have recruited, trained and armed suicide bombers.

Special forces surrounded his hideout in a carpentry shop early yesterday and called on him to surrender. He responded by throwing a fragmentation grenade, which killed a search dog. After a long exchange of fire, the troops launched an anti-tank missile, which set off a series of explosions. The Israelis said that confirmed the presence of a bomb factory.

After Palestinians retrieved the Mr Sider's body, Israeli forces demolished the building.

The shootout came hours before a scheduled meeting between Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Defence Minister, and his Palestinian opposite number, Mohammed Dahlan. They were trying to get the international "road-map" for peace back on course after a week of sporadic violence, in which Israel shot dead two Hamas gunmen in Nablus and Palestinian suicide bombers retaliated by killing two Israelis on either side of the West Bank border.

Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for Mr Dahlan, protested that yesterday's raid in Hebron would make it harder for the Palestinian security services to control the militant groups.

"The Israeli army should have thought twice," he said. "It is not enough that the attack might have been justified. It might even open the door wide for renewal of the bloody confrontation that has wrecked the region in the past three years."

Mr Dahlan urged the United States "to restrain the irresponsible moves and acts of the Israeli army that have lately pushed the region back to the days of targeted assassinations and provocative military operations, despite the clear commitment of the Palestinian Authority and of the Palestinian factions to the truce and to the road-map".

But Raanan Gissin, the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman, dismissed this, saying: "These are just the kind of people the Palestinians should be arresting."