Israeli ministers express delight at killing


THE radical Hamas Islamic movement last night threatened Israel with a series of violent revenge attacks for the killing yesterday of its most notorious bomb maker, Yihyah Ayash, in the Gaza Strip.

Israel did not formally acknowledge responsibility for assassinating Ayash, who was nicknamed "The Engineer" for his bombing skills, and who Israel says was behind the killings of at least 50 Israelis in a two year bombing campaign designed to destroy the fragile peace process.

However, minister after minister appeared on television to express delight at his elimination. And even the opposition leader, Mr Bejamin Netanyahu, celebrated the killing, noting: "If it was an Israeli military action, then our boys have done a great service to the state."

Officials in Mr Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, however, were evidently clearly rather less pleased by the timing of the assassination which comes just two weeks before Palestinians are scheduled to go to the polls.

Mr Sufian Abu Zaidah, Mr Arafat's minister for Israeli affairs, said he feared the killing "might disrupt the elections". And that was an understatement.

Though Hamas is not standing for election as a party, it had pledged not to interfere with the process, and several Islamic candidates are running independently.

Reports last night indicated that Hamas - which is blaming Mr Arafat's security agencies for involvement in the killing - was now ordering its loyalists to stay away from the polling booths. Ham as had tacitly agreed to suspend attacks on Israeli targets in recent months, while Israel carried out a series of military withdrawals from major Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

Israeli security forces were placed on alert last night, and Israeli civilians urged not to risk driving into Palestinian population centres.

The killing of Ayash conforms to what is becoming a pattern of well planned attacks on specific radical Islamic targets. The Israeli media reported early last year that the government had "declared war" on the master minds of anti Israeli Islamic violence. Several key figures have since met their deaths, including Fathi Shikaki, the leader of Hamas's smaller, more extreme counterpart Islamic Jihad, who was shot dead just two months ago outside a hotel in Malta. Then, as now, Israel neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

The West Bank born Ayash, aged about 30, was described on Israeli state television last night as the single most murderous terrorist ever in the 100 year history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict". He is believed to have planned, supplied the explosives and trained the suicide bombers who staged attacks on Israeli buses in the past two years in which more than 50 Israelis died and more than 300 were injured.

A chemistry graduate from the Birzeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank, Ayash topped Israel's wanted lists for three years.

Reuter adds: The PLO chairman expressed his condolences yesterday over the killing of Ayash, Palestinian witnesses said.

Mr Arafat and several Palestinian police officers paid a condolence visit to the Gaza home of Mr Mahmoud al Zahhar, the spokesman for the militant Islamic group Hamas, they said.