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Sharon Warns of  Broad Plan to Capture or Kill all Hamas Leaders - 2004-04-18

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will continue to hunt down all leaders of Hamas and will push ahead with his plan to disengage from some Palestinian areas. His pledge followed Israel's killing on Saturday of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Mr. Sharon opened a cabinet meeting by thanking the Israeli army for what he called a "successful" operation to assassinate Mr. Rantisi. The Hamas leader was fatally wounded in a helicopter gunship attack on his car on Saturday. Two bodyguards were killed outright.

Thousands of outraged Palestinians took to the streets in the Gaza Strip at the funerals. Hamas leaders promised revenge attacks on Israel.

Mr. Sharon said the Israeli policy of trying to advance the political process while at the same time hitting out at terrorist leaders would continue. He is hoping to build up support for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank before a referendum of his ruling Likud Party next month.

The prime minister's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says the killing of Mr. Rantisi is just one part of a wider plan to capture or kill all the leaders of Hamas. "Since we failed to bring him to justice, we brought justice to him and so we will do with the rest of the leaders of the terrorist organization," he said.

Hamas is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group. It has carried out frequent suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Israel claims Mr. Rantisi was directly responsible for some of these deaths and this justified his killing.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia says Israel's policy of killing Mr. Rantisi and other Hamas leaders will only lead to more bloodshed.

"It is no doubt that is a crime," he said. "It is completely condemned. And I am sure that it is a step that Israel intended to escalate the circle of violence in this region."

Hamas vowed to avenge the deaths of Mr. Rantisi and the group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in a similar Israeli military strike three-weeks ago.

Mr. Rantisi was elevated to the top position in the Gaza Strip, following the sheikh's death.

Hamas says it has selected another man to replace Mr. Rantisi. But it says the identity of the new leader will not be revealed in order to prevent Israel from assassinating him also.