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

Tens of thousands of Gaza residents, many of them in tears,
poured into the streets after Hamas announced the death of the
quadriplegic Yassin over mosque loudspeakers. Masked fighters at
Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where Yassin’s body was taken,
shot into the air in rage.

Hamas vowed revenge against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon.

Witnesses said Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at
Yassin and two bodyguards as they left the mosque, killing them
instantly. He was carried around in a special car that could
accommodate his wheelchair.

A total of four people were killed and 12 were wounded in the
attack, witnesses said.

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

“Their bodies were shattered,” he said.

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

One Israeli official recently said Yassin was “marked for
death.” 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.

More than 150 Palestinian militants have been killed in targeted
raids, according to Palestinian medical officials, though that
total also includes militants killed resisting arrest.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the
killing.

“Assassinations, incursions, walls, will not produce peace
and security, on the contrary, it will just add fuel to the
fire,” he said.

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.

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

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