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Friday, March 31, 2006

Explosion in Gaza kills key militant

GAZA, March 31 (Reuters) - A car explosion outside a Gaza mosque killed a top Palestinian militant on Friday, triggering a street gunbattle after fighters loyal to him accused Palestinian security forces of collaborating with Israel in the attack.

The Israeli army denied any involvement in the explosion, which also wounded a young boy. "It wasn't us," said an army spokeswoman. Israel has launched several recent air strikes in Gaza targeting militants.

The surge in violence in Gaza came one day after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed four Israelis in the West Bank. Top Hamas officials defended the suicide bombing as "resistance" against Israeli "crimes", putting them at odds with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who condemned the bombing.

Hamas trounced Abbas's Fatah faction in January parliamentary elections and officially took control of the Palestinian government this week.

The Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of militants in Gaza often responsible for rocket attacks against Israel, accused the Jewish state of assassinating Abu Youssef al-Quqa, one of the group's two top commanders.

"We declare an open war against the Zionist enemy," said PRC spokesman Abu Abir.

But Abu Abir later accused Palestinian security officials of collaborating with Israel. He singled out several by name, calling them "traitors" and vowing "We will behead them".

A gunfight later broke out between PRC members and Palestinian security forces. At least one person was injured in the brief exchange of fire.

The Gaza blast occurred near a mosque at the start of Friday prayers and all that was left of the car was a mangled heap of charred metal.

The boy was wounded in the head by flying debris, though medics said the injury was not life threatening.

The PRC has refused to recognise a March 2005 truce with Israel, citing the Jewish state's non-compliance.

Abu Abir said Quqa and other PRC leaders had recently attended a meeting to draw up plans to attack Israeli targets. "He (Quqa) said he knew he was going to be assassinated soon," Abir said.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas leader, said of the Gaza explosion: "It means that the Israeli aggression will not stop. It means our resistance should continue."


The conflicting statements of Hamas and Abbas on Thursday's suicide bombing were the first since the president swore in the Palestinian Authority's first Hamas government on Wednesday.

The suicide bombing, claimed by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, occurred days after Israeli leader Ehud Olmert's Kadima party won elections on a platform of setting Israel's borders in the occupied West Bank unilaterally in the absence of peace talks.

Palestinians say such a move would annex land and deny them the viable state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said the bomber, whose group is part of Abbas's Fatah faction, was disguised as a religious Jewish hitchhiker and blew himself up when Israelis in a car picked him up near a settlement late on Thursday.

"The Palestinian Authority does not accept it. We condemn it and we don't think it will help the peace process," Abbas told a news conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

But Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian Authority, described the suicide bombing as a "natural response to Israeli crimes". Information Minister Youssef Rizqa said: "Resistance is a legitimate right for people under occupation."

Abbas has said he could overrule Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction, if it continues to block peacemaking.

Hamas is under pressure from Abbas, Washington and the European Union to stop violence, recognise Israel and respect interim peace deals. It carried out about 60 suicide bombings during an uprising that began in 2000, but has upheld the truce.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said in a column published on Friday in a British newspaper that "we have every right to respond with all available means" if Israel continues to launch attacks and to impose "sanctions" on Palestinians.

Haniyeh also ruled out any talk of his Hamas-led government recognising Israel or ending the fight against the Jewish state until it commits itself to withdrawing from Palestinian land.

Hamas's cabinet is set to meet for the first time on Tuesday.
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