Sharon directed attack on Yassin: Hamas: 'This is open war'

Monday, March 22, 2004

GAZA CITY Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin has been killed in an Israeli military attack directed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"They tried to attack the dignity of our nation," Abdul Aziz Rentisi, Yassin's chief aide and apparent successor, said. "They are not assassinating Sheik Ahmed Yassin only. They are trying to assassinate everything. We are telling the enemies: this is an open war."

Israeli officials said the assassination of Yassin was overseen by Sharon, who has been promoting a plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip. They said Yassin's death was decided by Israel's Cabinet more than six months ago as part of a plan to eliminate Palestinian insurgency leaders. That decision was reaffirmed last week.

In 2003, Yassin, blamed for ordering major Hamas attacks, escaped Israeli assassination. Israeli officials said the Jewish state was now preparing for a Hamas suicide bombing campaign, Middle East Newsline reported. The military prevented Palestinian laborers from leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip and divided the strip into three areas.

Yassin was killed in an Israeli missile strike as he left mosque in Gaza City on early Monday. Eight others, including two of his sons, were killed in the helicopter attack on Yassin's convoy.

Witnesses said three missiles were fired from Israeli Air Force AH-64A Apache attack helicopters. A leading aide of Yassin, Ismail Haniya, survived the Israeli attack.

"The operation this morning demonstrated that terrorism has no immunity," Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said. "Even a sheik can be a terrorist."

An Israeli military statement said Yassin was killed in his vehicle. The statement said Yassin was directly involved in operational planning as well as cooperation with other insurgency groups.

"I have said for a while that Yassin was worthy of death," Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim said. "As long as there is motivation for terror, our operations will continue. Sometimes, we are successful; sometimes, we are not."

Hamas operatives fired mortars and anti-tank missiles against Israeli communities in the central Gaza Strip. The operatives, who also torched cars and hurled stones toward Palestinian Authority offices, vowed to launch revenge attacks against Israel, including an attempt to kill Sharon.

Hours after the assassination of Yassin, a Palestinian insurgent stabbed three people outside of a military installation in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. The insurgent was immediately captured.

Palestinian sources said Hamas leaders in Syria would seek to fill the vacuum left by the death of Yassin, who founded Hamas in 1987. The sources said Rentisi, who escaped an assassination attempt in 2002, would seek to succeed Yassin.

"Ahmed Yassin was a restraining element in Hamas," Palestinian Authority deputy minister Sufian Abu Zeidah said. "You will have a more extremist organization than before."

Yassin was imprisoned by Israel in 1989 in wake of the Hamas abduction of two Israeli soldiers. He was released in 1997 as part of an exchange in which Jordan released Mossad agents captured in Amman when they tried to assassinate Hamas politburo chief Khaled Masha'al. Until 2000, Israeli officials said, Yassin refrained from direct involvement in Hamas suicide operations.

"I am concerned that we have opened a chapter that could result in many people being killed," Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who voted against a decision to kill Yassin, said.

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