- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Three Palestinians, including an Islamic Jihad leader and militant, were killed yesterday when an Israeli helicopter blew up a car near Gaza City, medical and security sources said.

An Apache helicopter, backed by an F-16 fighter, fired three missiles in the Saftawi neighborhood just north of Gaza City, security sources said.

The Subaru car in which the three victims were travelling was destroyed, while nearby houses and other vehicles were damaged.

Medics said 10 people were wounded in the strike, one of whom was a 6-year-old, whose condition was said to be critical.

Security officials named the victims as Mahmud Jhouda, 30, a top leader of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the radical Islamic Jihad group. Fellow militant Amin al-Dahduh, 42, and his 20-year-old cousin Ayman, who was not affiliated with the group, were also killed in the strike, they said.

Sources initially thought the third victim had been a bystander because Mr. Jhouda’s head was blown out of the car by the force of the blast.

The latest deaths brought the number of people killed since the Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000 to 3,789, including 2,835 Palestinians and 886 Israelis.

The Israeli army confirmed the strike, saying it targeted an unspecified number of “senior militants” from Islamic Jihad.

“The Israeli Air Force attacked a vehicle carrying senior Islamic Jihad terrorists who were responsible for planning a number of terror attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets,” a spokesman said.

But the attack was lambasted by Palestinian officials and Islamic Jihad, which warned that the killings would only strengthen its struggle against Israeli occupation.

“This attack and this crazy war against the Palestinian people by [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will make the movement stronger and more insistent and give us more power to continue the struggle and jihad [holy war],” top Islamic Jihad official Mohammed al-Hindi said.

“We strongly condemn this assassination crime and ask the quartet to send an observer” to the Palestinian territories, said Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat. The European Union, United States, United Nations and Russia make up the international “Quartet” sponsoring the Middle East peace “road map.”

Mr. Erekat’s comments were echoed by Nabil Abu Rudeina, a top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who called on the “Quartet” to “stop Israel from carrying out targeted assassinations, which escalate the situation in the region.”

Four of Mr. Sharon’s top aides, including his chief of staff Dov Weisglass and the head of the national security council, Giora Eiland, were to leave for Washington late yesterday, Mr. Sharon’s office said.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom are also expected to visit Washington before Mr. Sharon himself heads for talks at the White House at the end of March.

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