Israel kills senior PLO leader in helicopter missile attack, blaming him for terrorism
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Raising the stakes in the Mideast conflict, Israeli helicopters fired a pair of rockets through office windows Monday and killed a senior PLO leader, the highest-ranking Palestinian slain in years.
Thousands of angry Palestinian protesters poured into the streets and a red-eyed Yasser Arafat declared three days of mourning for Mustafa Zibri, 63, leader of the hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In immediate retaliation, PFLP gunmen killed an Israeli in an ambush on a car in the West Bank.
The Palestinians said Israel was waging an ”all-out war,” while Israel said Zibri was involved in bombing attacks and was planning more.
Throughout the months of conflict, Israel has targeted Palestinians believed responsible for attacks against its soldiers and civilians, but most were considered midlevel operatives, such as bombmakers. Zibri was one of the top five figures in the PLO, headed by Arafat, the Palestinian leader. The killing took place barely 200 yards from Arafat’s West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.
Zibri, widely known as Abu Ali Mustafa, headed ”an active and deadly terrorist organization,” said Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s transportation minister and a retired general. Zibri was involved in seven bomb attacks in the past six months, including a blast last week in central Jerusalem, Sneh said.
Zibri’s group had claimed responsibility for the attacks shortly after they took place. The army said no one was killed in those attacks.
Upon hearing the news of Zibri’s death, Arafat, who was in Gaza City, withdrew to his office for about half an hour, his aides said.
Arafat later greeted Palestinian demonstrators who shook his hand and kissed him on the cheeks. They included the leaders of militant groups that have carried out the deadliest bombing attacks against Israel, including Abdullah Shami of Islamic Jihad and, according to sources, Sheik Ahmed Yassin of Hamas.
Before the Palestinian uprising began, Arafat’s security forces had jailed Shami on several occasions and cracked down on group members. But Arafat’s security forces have refused Israeli requests to arrest Islamic militants during the uprising, which has brought together Palestinian groups previously at odds.
The Palestinian Authority said in a statement that ”with its latest criminal act, the Israeli government confirms that it has decided to open the doors to an all-out war.”
Nabil Aburdeneh, an Arafat adviser, accused President Bush of a pro-Israeli bias that, Aburdeneh said, encouraged Israel to carry out the killing.
”This policy of assassinations which is being conducted with a green light from the United States will push the area into a new cycle of violence and danger,” Aburdeneh said.
The United States has condemned the targeted killings. However, Bush has been sharply critical of Arafat, saying he could do more to rein in militants.
Dore Gold, an Israeli government spokesman, said Zibri ”may himself not have been an operative in the field, but was directly involved in an overall effort by the PFLP to engage in bombings in Jerusalem.”
In an outpouring of anger, Palestinians marched in the streets of West Bank towns in the hours after the killing. In Arabe, Zibri’s home village in the northern West Bank, about 5,000 people marched, led by gunmen firing in the air.
In a first retaliation, the PFLP claimed responsibility for killing an Israeli in an ambush near the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh in the West Bank.
Shots were also fired Monday evening from the West Bank town of Beit Jalla at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built on land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed to Jerusalem. Gilo has been a frequent target of Palestinian shooting attacks. One Israeli resident was moderately wounded, police said. Israeli troops returned rifle fire.
In the Monday morning helicopter attack, Zibri was sitting at his desk in his second-floor Ramallah apartment, which doubled as PFLP headquarters. Rockets came through two windows of his corner office, decapitating Zibri and scorching the walls. No one else was hurt.
Zibri’s chair and the pockmarked walls of the office were stained with blood. Smoke blackened the facade of the building. The windows of other apartments were shattered, but no one was seriously hurt.
Three American-Palestinian families live in the building, including the al-Quaddumis, who lived directly beneath Zibri’s office and moved to the West Bank three years ago from Manassas, Va.
Leana Al Quaddumi, 15, said she was doing the laundry when the missiles hit. ”I heard the whole house shaking under my feet. I was terrified to death. Glass started flying around me. I started screaming, and then I left the house, running outside,” she said.
Zibri returned to the West Bank from exile in 1999, and became leader of the PFLP last year, taking over after the retirement of the group’s founder, George Habash, who lives in Damascus, Syria.
The PFLP has opposed the strategy of the past decade’s peace talks with Israel. But it does not insist on the elimination of the Jewish state, as Islamic militants do.
According to Palestinian human rights activists, about 50 Palestinians have been killed in targeted Israeli attacks in the last 11 months. While most were militants, the victims have included women and children who were bystanders.
Zibri was the most prominent Palestinian to be killed in recent years. In 1988, Israeli commandos shot and killed Khalil Al Wazir, the PLO military chief, in a raid of his Tunis, Tunisia, home. In 1995, Fathi Shakaki, leader of Islamic Jihad, was gunned down outside a Malta hotel in an attack widely attributed to Israel.
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