Senior PLO leader killed in Israeli rocket attack

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The Independent Online

Israeli helicopters fired rockets at the office of a senior PLO leader Monday, killing him in what Israel said was a pinpointed attack launched in retaliation for several bombings in Israel.

Mustafa Zibri, widely known as Abu Ali Mustafa, was the highest–ranking Palestinian official killed in a targeted Israeli attack in 11 months of fighting.

He led the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO faction opposed to peace talks with Israel. Israeli Cabinet Minister Ephraim Sneh said Zibri was involved in seven bomb attacks in the past six months and was a "legitimate and necessary target." The army said no one was killed in the bomb attacks.

The Palestinians accused Israel of further escalating violence.

"This is very dangerous," said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Aburdeneh. "This policy of assassinations which is being conducted with a green light from the United States will push the area into a new cycle of violence and danger."

Zibri was in his second–floor office, near Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, when the shells hit the building.

Palestinian security officials initially said the office was attacked by tank shells, but Israeli security officials said rockets were fired from helicopters.

Zibri's body was torn apart in the attack, doctors said. The rockets blew out two corner windows, and smoke blackened the facade.

One of Zibri's deputies, Abdel Rahim Malouh, was lightly hurt in the face by shrapnel. Malouh vowed revenge. "Abu Ali's blood will not be wasted," he said from his hospital bed.

Zibri returned to the West Bank from exile in 1999, and was described as one of five top figures in the PLO. He became leader of the PFLP last year, taking over from the group's founder, George Habash, who lives in Damascus, Syria.

Sneh, who serves as transport minister and is a retired general, said that Zibri turned the PFLP "back into what it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, an active and deadly terrorist organization."

"They were all his work," Sneh told Israel army radio.

The Israeli army said in a statement that the rocket attack was an "initiated action" and that Zibri was had been planning to carry out more bomb attacks.

More than 50 Palestinians have been killed in pinpointed Israeli attacks in the last 11 months of fighting, most of them militants suspected of involvement in attacks on Israelis. However, some of the victims have been bystanders, including two children.

Earlier Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he would press to arrange truce talks with Arafat, despite a violent weekend during which seven Israelis and four Palestinians were killed.

However, it was not clear whether the Palestinians would attend such talks after the killing of the PFLP leader.

Israel's use of American–made warplanes in the Mideast conflict, meanwhile, brought new charges from the Palestinians that the U.S. government is leaning heavily in Israel's favor. In weekend airstrikes, Israel sent U.S.–made F–15 and F–16 warplanes into action, dropping bombs on police buildings in three Palestinian towns.

The weekend's events began before dawn Saturday, when two Palestinian militants infiltrated an isolated Israeli army base in the Gaza Strip and opened fire. The intruders killed three Israeli soldiers and wounded seven before being shot dead by soldiers at the base.

Later that day, an Israeli couple was killed in a roadside ambush by Palestinian gunmen north of Jerusalem. The woman's brother was critically wounded, and later died of his injuries. The couple's infant children were lightly hurt.

In response, Israeli warplanes bombed three Palestinian police buildings. Army bulldozers leveled a fourth police installation, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. A Palestinian policeman was killed by Israeli fire in the Israeli incursion into Rafah.

On Sunday evening, an Israeli was shot and killed as he made a business transaction with a Palestinian at the edge of the West Bank, near the Palestinian town of Tulkarem.

Israeli helicopters attacked a Palestinian police station in Tulkarem, and tanks shelled police posts near the town of Ramallah. The military said the attacks were retaliation for the killing of the Israeli man.

Also Sunday, a young Palestinian was killed in unclear circumstances at the north end of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians said he was hit by a tank shell. Israeli media said he and two others were trying to infiltrate into Israel; the others escaped. The Israeli military had no comment.