Hamas leader dies in Israeli copter attack

Missiles strike founder as he is leaving mosque

Mourners take to the streets

Yassin most senior official killed in 3 years of fighting

March 22, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Israeli army killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in a dawn helicopter strike (today) as he and his bodyguards left a mosque near his home in Gaza City, Israeli authorities said.

Yassin, a quadriplegic, is the highest-profile target of Israel's campaign to assassinate members and leaders of militant groups responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that have claimed more than 1,000 lives in the past three years.

Palestinian doctors and witnesses confirmed the death of Yassin, his two bodyguards and possibly four others shortly after the 5:30 a.m. strike. Yassin escaped a previous attempt on his life by Israel in September.

FOR THE RECORD - In the lead paragraph the word yesterday was corrected and changed to today. See microfilm for published version.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, who in January warned that Yassin was "marked for death," told Israeli Radio this morning that the Hamas leader "deserves to die. He is not immune. Not him, not his friends."

Members of Hamas, the most lethal of several Palestinian militant groups, blared Yassin's death over mosque loudspeakers and from vans that circled the crowded, volatile streets of Gaza City. Thousands of mourners gathered, many of them firing guns into the air.

The Hamas announcements said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "has opened the gates of hell, and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head." Israelis, the speakers vowed, "will never enjoy rest. We will send death to every house, every city, every street in Israel."

`Cowardly act'

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack. "This is a crazy and very dangerous act," a statement said. "It opens the door wide open to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation and he was controlling Hamas, and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act."

In Israel, police went on high alert to prepare for possible retaliatory strikes, and prison authorities took precautions against rioting by the estimated 1,000 Hamas prisoners.

Israeli leaders have long maintained that Yassin was far from a symbolic leader, but rather they said he ordered the most recent series of attacks, including the March 14 double suicide bombing at the port in Ashdod that killed 10 people.

After that attack, Israeli troops massed at the Gaza border and threatened an all-out attack. Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, told Sharon's Cabinet yesterday that the army would "apply continuous pressure against this wave of terror."

Army commanders have said in recent days that they would increase military pressure in Gaza ahead of Sharon's plans to evacuate an estimated 7,000 Jewish settlers and soldiers, who live among 1.3 million Palestinians as part of his unilateral disengagement plan designed to separate the two sides. Palestinian militants have also increased their attacks.

There were few details from the chaotic scene in Gaza this morning immediately after the strike, which witnesses said targeted Yassin as his bodyguards pushed him in his wheelchair from the mosque to his white sport utility vehicle.

Thousands of people rushed to the scene, where some where seen holding up what remained of Yassin's bloodied wheelchair. They reported three explosions from missiles. "I looked to see where Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was," one witness told the Associated Press. "He was lying on the ground, and his chair was destroyed. People there darted left and right. Then another two missiles landed."

Militant gunmen were seen crying on the street. Yassin's body was taken by ambulance to Shifa Hospital, where witnesses said it arrived in pieces carried by medics in several nylon bags.

Hamas response

Israel's strike will most assuredly draw a response from Hamas, which in the past has lost some of its top commanders and bomb experts to Israeli assassinations. Before today, the highest Hamas leader killed by Israel was co-founder Ismael Abu Shanab. Israel has twice tried to kill the most radical of Hamas leaders, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and last year dropped a bomb on a building where Yassin and many of the group's top echelon had been meeting. All escaped with minor injuries.

The Israeli army has argued in the past that previous assassination campaigns have weakened Hamas and preoccupied its leaders with trying to stay alive. Hamas has many different figures, some more moderate than others, and Yassin's death leaves the group without a leader whose authority was unquestioned by nearly everyone. Rantisi, one of the group's most uncompromising figures, now emerges as its highest-profile leader and spokesman.

Yassin founded Hamas, an Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement, in 1987, building a grass-roots organization that accumulates power by continuing to recruit members and supporters.

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