Thursday, March 25, 2004

From combined dispatches

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian militant group Hamas said yesterday it will try to kill Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to avenge the assassination of its leader, but backed off its initial threat to target Americans as well.

“Our message to Sharon is that blood begets blood, and the arrows of treachery will be sent back to his throat,” the Syrian-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, said in a telephone address to mourners in a Gaza City soccer stadium yesterday.

Despite the threats, Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks in recent years, appears to have trouble carrying out immediate revenge attacks. Israel has been on the highest possible alert since the killing of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin on Monday.

In the West Bank, a 16-year-old Palestinian, Hussam Abdo, was caught at an Israeli roadblock with a bomb vest strapped to his body. Soldiers jumped behind barricades, and a dramatic standoff ensued. After persuading the youth to abandon his mission, troops sent a yellow robot to deliver scissors, and the teen cut off the vest. His brother said the boy is gullible and easily manipulated.

No group claimed responsibility for sending the youth, a resident of the West Bank city of Nablus.

A week ago, an 11-year-old boy was caught trying to smuggle explosives across the same roadblock, south of Nablus. The use of young bombers and accomplices is a sign of the difficulties that militants are facing in carrying out attacks. Children and teens usually come under less scrutiny at checkpoints than Palestinian men.

The new Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said yesterday that the group is not interested in exporting its activities to the United States and that Hamas’ attacks will be aimed solely at Israel.

“We are inside Palestinian land and acting only inside Palestinian land. We are resisting the occupation, nothing else,” the 56-year-old pediatrician told reporters. “Our resistance will continue just inside our border, here inside our country.”

Another Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Zahar, also said Americans have nothing to fear from Hamas.

“You are people innocent of the Zionist conspiracy that is fooling you and is stealing your money. You are not our target,” he said.

Immediately after the missile strike on Monday, Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, said that it held the United States responsible because of its support for Israel and that “all the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in the retaliation for this crime.”

President Bush said Tuesday the United States takes the threat seriously. Yesterday, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States remains concerned about the safety of Americans in the region. And a senior Bush administration official, asking not to be identified, said the credibility of yesterday’s disavowal cannot be assured.

In the Gaza Strip stadium where Mr. Mashaal — who heads the Hamas political bureau, the group’s main decision-making body — addressed thousands of supporters, armed Hamas militants vowed huge attacks against Israel.

“Wait for the earthquake,” one masked man warned.

“Those gangs, Sharon and his gangs, they will know that Hamas will be stronger and resistance will be stronger,” Mr. Mashaal said.

In an interview with the Associated Press in Damascus, Syria, he said Hamas has “the right, or rather the duty, of resistance to target the heads of Zionist terrorism in the same way that [Israelis] have been targeting the symbols of resistance during the past decades, including its late and greatest symbol, Yassin.”

For its part, Israel has decided to target the entire leadership of Hamas.

Mr. Rantisi, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt last June, said he is not afraid of dying.

“If it’s cardiac arrest or an Apache [helicopter], I prefer to be killed by an Apache,” he said.

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