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Israel murder bid blot on road map

Gaza, June 10 (Reuters): Israel tried to kill the public face of Hamas today, wounding Palestinian militant leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi in a helicopter strike that drew vows of revenge from Hamas and fears for the US-backed peace plan.

US officials said President George W. Bush was “deeply troubled” by the assassination attempt as it could undermine the new Palestinian leadership’s efforts to subdue militant groups, a key element in the “road map” peace initiative.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas took a tough line on the Israeli strike, telling al-Arabiya television: “We don’t just condemn these acts, we consider them a crime.”

“We have said that to the American government and we have asked them to intervene immediately to save the peace process and save the road map,” Abbas told the Dubai-based TV station.

But an Israeli spokesman accused Rantissi of being “an assembly line of suicide bombings and acts of terrorism”, and said he had coordinated an attack on Israeli troops two days ago in which four soldiers and three gunmen had been killed.

The missile strike set off a deadly cycle of violence of the kind that has doomed previous West Asian peace initiatives.

Hamas militants responded to the attempt on Rantissi’s life by firing rockets into a town in nearby Israel, injuring one person, and this prompted a second Israeli helicopter attack later in the day that killed three Palestinians and wounded 32.

The Israeli army said helicopters in the second operation were trying to hit Hamas men spotted fleeing from an area where they had just launched five rockets into the town of Sderot.

Gaza hospital officials said the three killed were civilians Ä all members of one family — in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp, not far from where Hamas militants have often targeted Israel with crude homemade Qassam rockets. Medics said members of the rocket squad were among the wounded.

Witnesses said Israeli tanks also pounded the area in support of the helicopters and caused some of the casualties.

Witnesses said two helicopter gunships fired seven missiles that set Rantissi’s car ablaze in Gaza City, killing two people and wounding about 20. Rantissi leapt clear just in time and suffered injuries that doctors said were not life-threatening.

Confirming he had been the target, Israeli security sources accused Rantissi, a 55-year-old senior political aide to Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and a spokesperson for the Islamic group, of taking on a prominent military role recently.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN Rantissi was “an enemy of peace running the whole gauntlet of this operation. He’s responsible for the attack in the Erez junction, and more attacks were in the offing.”

Rantissi himself vowed revenge “like an earthquake” and called Sharon a “pig” — a term deeply insulting to both Jews and Muslims who consider the animal unclean — who would never feel safe.

Hamas has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings in the uprising for statehood that began in September 2000.

Bush threw his personal prestige behind the internationally backed “road map” peace plan at a Red Sea summit meeting with Sharon and Abbas last week.

“The President is concerned that the strike (on Rantissi) will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks and does not contribute to the security of Israel,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Rantissi has in the past week rejected calls by Abbas to cease attacks on Israelis under the road map, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

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