Israeli air strike kills Hamas leader

Militant group threatens retaliation against Sharon and over US 'consent'

Ibrahim Barzak,Ap
Monday 22 March 2004 01:00
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Israel today killed the Hamas founder and spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin in a helicopter missile strike outside a Gaza City mosque. The assassination unleashed threats of unprecedented revenge by Palestinian militants against Israel and the United States.

Yassin, in his 60s, was the most prominent Palestinian leader killed by Israel in more than three years of fighting. The strikes was seen as a major escalation that drew condemnation not just from the Arab world but also many European countries.

More than 200,000 Palestinians, some carrying billowing green Hamas flags, flooded the streets for the funeral procession, the largest gathering in Gaza City in recent memory. Two Israeli helicopters flew above while the sky was blackened from the smoke of tyres burned in protest.

"Words cannot describe the emotion of anger and hate inside our hearts," said Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh, a close Yassin associate.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Yassin the "mastermind of Palestinian terror" and a "mass-murderer who is among Israel's greatest enemies."

He said Israel would press ahead with its war on terror, signaling there will be more targeted attacks and raids. In addition to Yassin, 11 Palestinians were killed today, seven in the airstrike, three in clashes with Israeli troops and one while handling explosives.

Israeli helicopters fired three missiles as the wheelchair-bound Yassin, his bodyguards and dozens of others left a mosque in Gaza City. Yassin and seven others were killed, including several bodyguards and his son-in-law. Seventeen people were wounded, among them two of Yassin's sons. Only a charred metal seat and a twisted wheel were left of Yassin's wheelchair.

Fearing reprisal attacks, Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza and confined many West Bank Palestinians to their communities. The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was also closed. Troops reinforcements were sent to Gaza, and security forces in Israel were placed on high alert.

The Yassin assassination was seen as a huge gamble by Sharon, who is trying to score a decisive victory against Hamas ahead of a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but risks triggering a dramatic escalation in bloodshed that could turn the public's mood in Israel against him.

Sharon's critics in Israel warned that the Yassin killing could be seen as an attack by Israel on Islam and unnecessarily widen the circle of conflict.

The Palestinian Authority said in a statement that "Israel has exceeded all red lines with this cheap and dirty crime" and declared a three-day mourning period.

Flags at Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah were lowered to half-mast, and the Palestinian Cabinet held an emergency session. Yassin was Arafat's biggest political rival, but Arafat was always careful not to confront the Hamas leader openly.

About 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside Arafat's headquarters, screaming for revenge and demanding to speak to the Palestinian leader. Arafat remained inside, possibly fearing that he too might be targeted by Israel.

However, an Israeli security official said there were no immediate plans to target Arafat, and that Hamas was the focus of Israel's current offensive.

For the first time, Hamas also threatened the United States, saying America's backing of Israel made the assassination possible. "All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in on the retaliation for this crime," Hamas said in a statement.

In the past, Hamas leaders have insisted their struggle is against Israel and that they would not get involved in causes by militant Muslims in other parts of the world. Today's statement suggested Hamas might seek outside help in carrying out revenge attacks.

Since Yassin founded Hamas in 1987, it has carried killed hundreds of Israelis in scores of attacks. Hamas wants to destroy the Jewish state, replacing it with an Islamic one. Hamas' stronghold is in Gaza, where it has curried loyalty from impoverished Palestinians by offering an array of social services, from kindergartens to health clinics.

Israel's Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Yassin's "hands are soaked in the blood of Israeli children."

Israel had previously tried to kill Yassin in September when a warplane dropped a bomb on a building where he and other Hamas leaders were meeting, but Yassin escaped with just a small wound to his hand.

In more than three years of fighting, Hamas and the Israeli military have waged a "war of attrition," with Hamas carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks, and Israeli trying to even the score with airstrikes and ground raids.

Despite Israeli threats against him, Yassin never changed his routine. Every morning, he would attend pre-dawn prayers at the local mosque in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City. Today, he did the same, being wheeled to the house of prayer by bodyguards. As he emerged at around 5.30am (03.30 GMT), three Israeli missiles hit.

Announcing Yassin's death over mosque loudspeakers, the Hamas leadership said, "Sharon has opened the gates of hell and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head."

Yassin, a quadriplegic, founded Hamas in 1987. He was held in Israeli prisons for several years before being released in 1994.

He lived in a modest house. Though he was limited in his movements, and Israel blamed him for inspiring Hamas bombers and attackers who killed hundreds of Israelis, Israeli governments had until now refrained from targeting him, fearing a firestorm of revenge attacks.

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