Sharon praises assassination and vows to stick with policy

Ariel Sharon, Israel's premier,vowed yesterday to continue targeted killings of militant leaders after he praised the successful assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's premier,vowed yesterday to continue targeted killings of militant leaders after he praised the successful assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi.

As he used his weekly cabinet meeting to praise the defence establishment for the operation, Mr Sharon said: "This policy of making an effort on the one hand to advance a political process and on the other hand to hit the terror organisations and their leaders will continue.'' Gideon Ezra, one of his ministers, said that the government was including the exiled Khaled Mashaal, Hamas's overall leader, on its list of targets.

Israel has accused Mr Mashaal - who is thought to move between Qatar, Syria and Lebanon - of masterminding the wave of suicide bombings since the present intifada began three and a half years ago.

The Israelis have once tried to assassinate Mr Mashaal, when Mossad agents sought to poison him in Jordan. Ironically, it was in exchange for the two agents that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, assassinated in Gaza three weeks ago, had been released from an Israeli prison.

Israeli officials said yesterday they believed the policy of targeted killings was helping to rein in violence, particularly inflicted by Hamas, because it was much more difficult for militant leaders on the run to organise suicide attacks while they were preoccupied with their personal security.

Although government members stress that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority President, is "not immune'' from the policy of targeted killings, officials said the policy, at present, concentrated on Hamas in ways which gave the Palestinian Authority the opportunity, if it chose to take it, of clamping down on the militants.

Mr Sharon won important and possibly pivotal support for his plans to pull out of Gaza when two hitherto highly sceptical cabinet ministers - Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister, and Limor Livnat, the education minister - indicated their backing for the plan.

It is widely believed in Israeli political circles that one factor behind the assassination in Gaza is Mr Sharon's determination to eliminate as much as possible of the Hamas leadership before withdrawing from Gaza, and to prevent Hamas and other militant factions claiming the disengagement as a victory for themselves.

Mr Mashaal linked the assassination with the acceptance by President George Bush on Wednesday of Mr Sharon's demands that some territory on the Palestinian side of the 1967 "green line'' should remain in Israel's hands and that there should be no right of return for Palestinian refugees in any final settlement.

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