Israeli missile strike kills Hamas militant

Friday, May 9, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel killed a senior Hamas fugitive in a missile attack in northern Gaza Thursday, in a clear signal that it would not wait for a promised Palestinian crackdown on militants.

The missile strike killed Iyad al-Baeck, 30, and was similar to dozens of others in 31 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence. It was carried out despite the coming arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is trying to persuade both sides to take up an international peace plan.

Also Thursday, a Palestinian blew up a car bomb after crashing into an Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip, killing himself, the Israeli military said. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah organization, claimed responsibility in a call to The Associated Press. Three other Palestinians died in separate incidents.

The continuing violence weighed heavily against a quick start to the peacemaking efforts. Powell is due to arrive late Saturday for separate talks on Sunday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the first push toward implementing the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, officials from both sides said.

Witnesses said a helicopter fired two missiles at al-Baeck's car, blowing it up, killing him instantly and slightly wounding three bystanders.

"One missile hit the car from the front and the other from behind," said witness Imad Mohammed. "There were pieces of human flesh flying into the air."

The Israeli military said al-Baeck was an aide to Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh, killed in an Israeli air strike last summer. Al-Baeck was held responsible for 16 Hamas attacks that killed 19 Israelis.

Hamas threatened revenge. "The new crime will have severe reprisals," Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi said, hinting at a new round of violence just as peace efforts resume.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, repeated U.S. opposition to targeted killings. "They undermine the efforts to achieve peace, they aggravate the situation in the region," he said.

At the same time, Boucher said "there can be no excuse for the violence and terrorism that has been directed at the Israeli people."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he personally approved the helicopter strike, because the military told him that al-Baeck was "planning new attacks."

Interviewed on Israel TV, Sharon rejected the contention that Israel should halt such operations to give some breathing space to the new Palestinian government of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, installed last week. Abbas has spoken out against Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Sharon said Israel would not relax its military operations now. "As long as the Palestinian Authority does not take steps to prevent terror, the Israeli government must act to prevent terror," he said. "This is my responsibility." Palestinians charge that Israel is trying to sabotage the peace plan.

Ending the violence is a key to the beginning of the three-phase road map plan presented last week by the Quartet of Mideast mediators -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- leading to full Palestinian statehood in three years.

After Powell starts the process, State Department officials are to remain in the area to push for progress. Diplomats from the other three members of the Quartet will also be involved.

In the West Bank oasis town of Jericho, Israel TV's Channel 10 filmed Palestinian commandos training to replace Israeli soldiers in Palestinian cities and towns they now occupy. The commander of the unit, who refused to give his name, said that his forces would arrest suicide bombers and other militants after the Israelis leave. An Israeli pullback is part of phase one of the road map plan.

The Gaza Strip bombing took place near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. A Palestinian crashed the bomb-laden car into a tank, killing himself in the blast. There were no Israeli casualties, the military said. A second Palestinian opened fire with a rifle, setting off an exchange of gunfire, the military and witnesses said, and Israeli forces tore down some buildings near the scene.

Also Thursday, the military said Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian near a Jewish settlement in Gaza before dawn. Palestinians said soldiers also killed a man guiding a donkey in the West Bank. The military had no comment.

After nightfall, a Palestinian was shot and killed in the Rafah refugee camp by Israeli army gunfire, Palestinians said. The military had no immediate comment. The area is the scene of almost daily gun battles.

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