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Arab, European Officials Condemn Israeli Assassination of Hamas Leader - 2004-04-17

There has been passionate reaction in the Middle East to Israel's killing of a top Hamas leader and two of his body guards in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian prime minister blamed the U.S. administration for encouraging Israel to assassinate the leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in a military helicopter strike. Israel says its actions are justified against a man it says was a "mastermind of terror".

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia launched unusually harsh criticism against the United States for the killing late Saturday of Mr. Rantisi.

Mr. Qureia says Israel's action is the "direct result of American encouragement and the complete bias of the American administration towards the Israeli government".

It is believed to be the first time that a senior Palestinian official has ever linked Israel's targeted killing of high-profile Palestinians to the policies of the U.S. government.

Mr. Qureia's statement appears to reflect continuing anger over the outcome of this week's summit in Washington between President George Bush and the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

A member of the Palestinian cabinet, Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib, described Mr. Rantisi's killing as state sponsored terrorism that would lead to more bloodshed.

"As long as Israel will continue to resort to force and violence we will unfortunately [cause] a deepening of this vicious circle of violence," he said.

The reaction from the Israeli side could not have been more different.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Johnathan Peled says the killing of Mr. Rantisi was entirely justified. "Israel is compelled to continue fighting against terrorism and today struck a mastermind of terrorism, a man with blood on his hands, the head of the Hamas terrorist organization, which is responsible for the death of hundreds of Israelis," he said.

Britain condemned the strike, with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw calling it unlawful. A U.S. State Department official says Israel should consider the consequences of its actions.

The killing of Mr. Rantisi comes just weeks after Israel assassinated the Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Hamas officials have vowed to avenge their deaths warning that Israel will pay a heavy price for its actions.

Earlier Saturday, Hamas claimed joint responsibility with another militant group, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, for a suicide bombing in the Gaza Strip that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded several others.