US rebukes Israel after senior PLO member is killed in missile attack

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The Independent Online

Israel and its death squads expanded their targets on Monday from suspected Palestinian guerrillas and struck at the heart of the Palestinian political leadership by assassinating one of its most senior figures.

Abu Ali Mustafa, the 64-year-old head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was blown to pieces by two helicopter missiles as he sat at his desk on Monday morning, becoming the most prominent Palestinian killed during the 11-month war.

His death caused a wave of anger from Israel's Arab neighbours, and outright fury among the Palestinians who knew him not only as the secretary general of the PLO's second-largest faction but as one of its founding members, a veteran in the liberation movement and an associate of Yasser Arafat.

His assassination drew a rare rebuke from the United States, where the Bush administration ­ to Palestinian disgust ­ has been leaning heavily towards Israel in recent days. This change of heart had much to do with American annoyance over the news that the building hit by the rocket attack contained 20 American citizens, of Palestinian extraction. Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman, said Israel's assassinations were inflaming the Middle East conflict and ­ also unusually ­ he urged the Israelis to alleviate "the pressure, the hardship and the humiliations of the Palestinian people".

Israel admitted killing Mr Mustafa but accused the PFLP leader of being to blame for recent car bombings. His curriculum vitae was "soaked with blood", Ra'anan Gissin, a government spokesman, said. In truth, the PFLP has been relatively inactive during the conflict, especially when compared with the suicide bombers of the Islamic Hamas or the guerrillas of the mainstream Fatah movement, and has claimed responsibility only for a handful of attacks.

Israeli officials justified the attack ­ as it often does with the illicit killings by its death squads ­ as actions necessary to save Israeli lives. Ephraim Sneh, a cabinet minister, said Mr Mustafa was involved in seven bomb attacks in the past six months, was planning more bombings and was a "legitimate and necessary target". Yet what really lay behind the mission was far from clear. What was obvious, though, was that it marked another grim watershed in the conflict.

Within a matter of hours, the PFLP claimed to have avenged its leader's death by killing a Jewish settler on the West Bank. And, as darkness fell, there were renewed gun battles near Bethlehem.

News that Israel had killed one of the PLO's top leaders swept rapidly across the region. In Syria, television broadcasts were interrupted to carry the news. There was strong condemnation from Egypt. Jordan called it a "crazy, treacherous and immoral act of aggression". Israel had "opened the gates to an all-out war", said a statement from the Palestinian Authority, which declared three days of mourning. Grief-stricken Palestinians ­ many of whom took to the streets for demonstrations ­ compared the assassination to that of Khalil al-Wazir, Yasser Arafat's close confidant and a pillar of the PLO, who was shot dead by Israeli commandos in his home in Tunis in 1988.

Palestinian officials were adamant that Mr Mustafa, also known as Mustafa Zibri, was from the PFLP's political branch, and uninvolved in its military side. He was allowed by Israel to return to the occupied territories in January 1999. He rose to prominence last year, when, after years as number two, he took over the faction after the resignation of the George Habash, who led the organisation through its most notorious aircraft-hijacking exploits in the 1970s.

The group opposed the 1993 Oslo accords, but supports a two-state solution to the conflict, according to UN Resolution 242. Always small, the PFLP's popularity had begun to pick up during the current intifada ­ like that of other radical anti-Oslo groups.

Mr Mustafa's office was a small room on the top corner of a modest three-storey building, several hundred yards from the large complex housing Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. At the scene an aide who gave his name as Sa'ad explained that the PFLP leader arrived at work about an hour before his death.

At about 11.15am, two missiles fired from Israeli Apache helicopters smashed through the arched windows almost simultaneously, instantly killing Mr Mustafa as he sat in his swivel chair. His body was so badly mutilated that his remains were identifiable only by his clothes.

"We were so careful about his life," said Sa'ad as he stood in the wrecked office on a carpet of detritus spattered with his leader's remains. "But no one thought that they would kill a political man who was well known by both sides." One floor below, the Da'as family were also examining shards of glass strewn across the bedroom of their two youngest, Hanin, aged two, and Lela, 10. The bedroom, decked with pictures from Disney's Winnie the Pooh, is exactly beneath the PFLP leader's office. The children were not inside.

Their father, Abdul Da'as, 40, a Palestinian-American, was appalled that the weapons were made in the US, where he has citizenship. He said: "I am shocked. He was an old man. It just never crossed my mind that they would target a building with all these people living in it."

The assassination came after a weekend that saw seven Israelis killed, including three soldiers shot dead by two guerrillas in an operation claimed by the DFLP, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.