- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

From combined dispatches

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and leader of the militant group Hamas, which targeted Israelis in suicide bombings, was killed by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters as he left a mosque at daybreak today, witnesses said.

Hamas confirmed the death in an announcement broadcast over mosque loudspeakers and vowed revenge against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Witnesses said Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at Sheik Yassin and two bodyguards as they left the Al Mujama mosque in the Sabra neighborhood, killing them instantly.

They added “as soon as his bodyguards put him into his car, an Israeli Apache helicopter fired three missiles at the car, killing him, two of his bodyguards and a bystander.”

In all, four persons were killed and 12 were wounded, among them two of Sheik Yassin’s sons, in the attack, witnesses said.

Yussef Haddad, 35, a taxi driver, said he saw the missiles hit Sheik Yassin and the bodyguards.

“Their bodies were shattered,” he said.

Sheik Yassin was by far the most senior Palestinian militant killed in more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Since September 2000, 474 persons — the majority of them Israelis — have been killed in 112 Palestinian suicide bombings.

Mr. Sharon’s government has gone after militant leaders using Israeli helicopter gunships in a controversial policy that has resulted in a number of civilian casualties in addition to the deaths of senior figures in Hamas and other groups.

Sheik Yassin was viewed as an inspirational figure by his followers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. His death could spur violent protests not only in the Palestinian areas, but in the wider Arab and Islamic world, where he was well-regarded as a symbol of the Palestinian battle for independence.

Thousands of angry Palestinians gathered minutes after the attack, calling for revenge against Israel.

Israeli radio in Jerusalem reported that Mr. Sharon has given the “green light” and personally supervised the attack.

Another radio station reported that Israeli’s deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said that Sheik Yassin “deserved to die” and said the attack should serve as a warning that “no terrorist leader will be immune.”

In announcing Sheik Yassin’s death, Hamas said, “Sharon has opened the gates of hell and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head.”

The Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, vowed to avenge the killing with “immediate reprisals, like an earthquake that will hit everywhere,” in statement received by Agence France-Presse.

Hamas militants vowed to “bring death to every house” in Israel. “Sheik Ahmed Yassin rest in peace. They will never enjoy rest. We will send death to every house, every city, every street in Israel,” Hamas militants shouted through loudspeakers in the streets of Gaza City.

Ambulances and firetrucks raced to the scene with sirens wailing, and rescue workers were gathering up the shattered bodies.

Sheik Yassin founded Hamas in 1987. He was held in Israeli prisons for several years before being released in 1994, in exchange for the release of Israeli Mossad agents caught in Amman, Jordan, when they tried to kill another Hamas leader.

Sheik Yassin lived in a modest house in the rundown Sabra neighborhood in Gaza City. Israel, which blamed him for inspiring the Hamas suicide bombers and attackers who killed hundreds of Israelis, tried unsuccessfully to kill him in a September missile strike that injured 16 persons.

Past Israeli governments were reluctant to target Sheik Yassin, fearing a firestorm of revenge attacks.

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