Hamas Leader Escapes Unhurt From Israeli missiles; One Palestinian Gunman Dead
The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and other senior leaders of the Islamic militant group were inside a Gaza City mosque when Israeli missiles hit its compound, senior Palestinian security sources and witnesses told AFP.
"Sheikh Yasin and some senior Hamas leaders were inside the mosque when it was struck by missiles," the security sources said, but added that Yassin -- whom the Palestinian Authority has ordered placed under house arrest -- escaped unhurt.
An open prayer area at the front of the al-Rahma mosque in the city's al-Sabra neighbourhood was hit by two missiles from an Apache helicopter during air strikes on Thursday night, they said.
Witnesses said another missile crashed through the roof of a nearby house but did not explode.
"I was walking outside of the mosque when I heard a helicopter. Then I saw it fired a missile and I thought it was going to hit the mosque because Sheikh Yassin and Dr. al-Zahar were praying inside and they were on their way out," one of the witnesses, Ahmed Kalaja, told AFP.
"I don't know if they were targetting Sheikh Yassin or if it was just a warning," he said.
The mosque is opposite to the home of Mahmud al-Zahar, a leading political official of the militant group which has claimed several recent suicide attacks inside Israel which have sparked retaliatory air strikes, they said.
The Hamas source confirmed missiles had hit the prayer area, but that the building itself had not been badly damaged.
Kalaja said that a crowd of people rushed Yassin and Zahar away from the scene.
"I saw Zahar because he lives very close to the mosque and he's been leading the prayers there for 12 years," said another witness, student Mahmud Shasha, who suffered cuts to his head from the explosions.
"I think they were targetting the mosque because Zahar was inside. The Israelis must have been informed because (the attack) was at the end of the evening prayers and there were not many people left inside," he said, indicating they had wanted few casualties.
The mosque had been filled with some 500 people attending nightly prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan earlier in the evening, he said.
He added that several other people suffered cuts after the explosion blew out many of the mosque's windows, and some women standing in the entrance had fainted.
"I saw the missiles hit next to the house of Mahmud al-Zahar in the mosque and there was a big flash of fire," another witness in the neighbourhood earlier told AFP by telephone.
Gaza City and parts of the West Bank were hit by a second straight day of helicopter and F-16 raids Thursday as part of Israel's retaliation for a series of attacks by militant groups, including Hamas.
Palestinian police last week tried to enforce Yassin's house arrest, but were driven back after a gun battle between hundreds of his supporters. Since then police have remained several blocks away from his house in a quiet standoff.
Authorities allowed Sheikh Yassin to attend weekly prayers during he was placed under a similar house arrest two years ago.
The 65-year-old militant leader is paralysed and virtually blind. He is revered by the Hamas militants whose members have carried out the bulk of the suicide bombings against Israel since 1994 and are staunchly opposed to the Middle East peace process.
Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings at the start of the month that killed 26 civilians and wounded more than 200.
One of three Palestinian gunman, who killed 10 Israelis in an ambush on a Jewish settlers' bus on Wednesday, was also a Hamas militant, Palestinian security sources said.
Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian gunman in an exchange of fire near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip, the army said in a statement.
The gunman opened fire on an army convoy passing through Karni junction near the settlement and the army returned fire, the statement said.
A Kalashnikov rifle, ammunition and grenades were found on the body, it added.
However, Palestinian security sources claimed "there was no shooting in the area.
"The Israelis informed us that they would return the body overnight, but according to our information he was unarmed," the sources added.
But an army spokeswoman said soldiers were afraid the body was "strapped with explosives, so the bomb squad has been called in to handle it."
The death brings to 1,088 the number of people killed since the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli rule in September 2000, including 832 Palestinians and 233 Israelis.
Earlier, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy died after Israeli soldiers shot him in the head near Rafah by the Egyptian border in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinian hospital sources said.
He was one of six boys shot by troops in Rafah.
One, aged 11, was also said to be in critical condition. — (AFP, Gaza)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)
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