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Tuesday April 3, 2001

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Israeli attack kills militant Islamic leader

By The Associated Press

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Israeli helicopter gunships yesterday rocketed a Palestinian pickup truck, killing a leading member of the militant Islamic Jihad group suspected by Israel of planting roadside bombs and carrying out other attacks.

In the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, meanwhile, Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers exchanged heavy fire, and there were unconfirmed reports of casualties. The loud booms could be heard in downtown Jerusalem, a few miles away.

In Rafah, the Israeli rocket attack killed 29-year-old Mohammed Abdel Al, a leading member of Islamic Jihad's military wing, and turned his truck into a smoldering pile of metal.

In a quick burial, more than 2,000 mourners shouted "revenge, revenge," as they marched behind the body, draped in a red blanket. Dozens of gunmen fired in the air.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment.

An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed Abdel Al killed an Israeli soldier in a 1994 shooting attack, helped plot a 1995 suicide bombing that killed more than 20 Israelis and in February planted two roadside bombs in Gaza.

Abdel Al, a father of three, was a leading member of the Al Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, according to relatives.

Around midday yesterday, four Israeli helicopter gunships hovered above Abdel Al's truck near the Rafah refugee camp on the border with Egypt, and two of the gunships unleashed rockets, said a cousin, Sami Abdel Al.

A passenger was critically injured, Palestinian police said.

The killing came at a time of renewed escalation in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, including Israel's rocketing last week of headquarters of Force 17, a Palestinian security service, and the seizing of five Force 17 members from a Palestinian-controlled village in the West Bank.

"What happened in Gaza today is part of an Israeli plan to terrorize the Palestinians," said Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian security chief in Gaza. "Sharon's government should recognize that such aggression will not bring peace and security."

Islamic Jihad has carried out a number of bombing and shooting attacks in Israel in the past decade, including eight for which it was blamed or for which it claimed responsibility in the past six months.

The fighting in Bethlehem began when Palestinian gunmen fired at Israeli soldiers guarding Rachel's Tomb, an Israeli enclave in the Palestinian-controlled town and the traditional burial site of the biblical matriarch, the army said.

Israeli troops crouching behind sand bags fired small rockets and large-caliber bullets at Aida refugee camp near Rachel's Tomb, Palestinian witnesses said. Three clouds of white smoke rose from Aida where Israeli fire had hit.

The renewed fighting came a day after an Israeli reserve soldier was killed in a firefight near the West Bank town of Nablus. Palestinians shot at an army post, and Israeli troops returned fire, apparently causing no injuries.

In a leaflet distributed in the West Bank, a Palestinian group calling itself the "Return Brigade" said it attacked the army post to avenge the deaths of five Palestinians from the Nablus area killed last week in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

In response to the killing of the soldier, the army sealed off the village of Salem near Nablus from which the fatal shots were fired Sunday night. Earth movers dug up asphalt, earth and rocks and heaped them on the road, witnesses said.

In the divided West Bank town of Hebron, a gas canister explosion went off Sunday night in a Palestinian grocery, hours after Jewish settlers buried a 10-month-old baby girl who had been killed by Palestinian fire a week earlier.

The grocery was destroyed and two adjacent Palestinian shops, a bakery and a fast food restaurant, were badly damaged, witnesses said.

Six Israeli policemen who were passing by were lightly injured in the blast, and three had to be hospitalized, police spokesman Rafi Yaffe said. Seven other gas canisters were found nearby. The police and the army suspect all the canisters were planted by Jewish settlers, Yaffe said.

The settlers live in a string of downtown enclaves protected by large numbers of Israeli soldiers and police.

Since the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians began, 457 people have been killed, including 375 Palestinians, 63 Israeli Jews and 19 others.