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Palestinians Protest Killing of Hamas Leader - 2004-03-22


Tens of thousands of Palestinians joined a funeral procession for Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin killed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City today (Monday).

Armed fighters of the Palestinian militant group carried the coffin with Sheikh Yassin's remains through the streets of the city, accompanied by angry crowds demanding revenge.

Hamas has vowed reprisals for the assassination, which took place early today as Sheikh Yassin left a mosque in Gaza City. Missiles fired by Israeli helicopters killed the 67-year-old sheikh, who was a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. Palestinians say seven other people also died, including two of the sheikh's bodyguards. Several people were wounded.

The Palestinian Authority condemned what it called Israel's "dangerous" and "cowardly" act. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the killing "opens the door wide for chaos." Palestinian President Yasser Arafat declared three days of mourning for the slain Hamas leader.

Hours after the deadly air strike, Israeli officials say a Palestinian with an ax wounded three Israelis near Tel Aviv. The injuries were not serious.

Israeli security forces have sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel confirmed it carried out the deadly operation, saying Sheikh Yassin was personally responsible for orderinh suicide attacks against Israelis.

Sheikh Yassin, who spent several years in an Israeli prison, was the most senior Palestinian leader killed since the intifada (uprising) against Israel began three years ago.

Israel had condemned Sheikh Yassin many times in the past for inciting violence against the Jewish state. The Hamas leader narrowly escaped an Israeli air strike in Gaza last September.

An attack by two suicide bombers eight days ago in the Israeli port of Ashdod killed 10 people and prompted Israel to warn again that leaders of Palestinian militant groups would be targets for Israeli military action. The bombing was claimed jointly by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has also joined Hamas in vowing reprisals for today's air strike.

Information for this report is provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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