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Israel, Hamas in tit-for-tat roar

Jerusalem, March 23 (Reuters): Israel said all Palestinian militant leaders were “in its sights” today, one day after killing Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin in an attack that provoked vows of bloody revenge.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and top aides approved the order to target all senior militants after the wheelchair-bound cleric was assassinated in a missile strike outside a Gaza mosque yesterday, security sources said.

“Everyone is in our sights,” internal security minister Tsahi Hanegbi said. “There is no immunity to anyone.”

Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, newly named as Hamas chief for the Gaza Strip, also vowed today that the Palestinian militant group would strike Israelis everywhere following Israel’s assassination of its spiritual leader.

“We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation,” Rantissi told thousands of mourners gathered in Gaza’s main soccer stadium. Hamas supporters responded chanting: “We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you”.

Militant leader Khaled Meshaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997, was named Hamas’ overall chief today, replacing Yassin

Israel’s army chief hinted that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah could end up on the hit list, though security sources said there was no immediate plan to kill either.

“I think that judging by their hysterical responses (to Yassin’s assassination) it appears they realise it is getting closer to them,” General Moshe Yaalon said.

On hearing about Yassin’s assassination yesterday, Arafat told his aides: “I could be next.”

Fearing attacks that Hamas has pledged to avenge Yassin, Israeli forces went on high alert. Previous assassinations triggered waves of suicide bombings on buses and cafes that killed scores of Israelis.

Hamas, sworn to destroy Israel, said it did not plan to change its strategy by carrying out attacks in other parts of the world. But fears grew that other Arab or Muslim groups might do so in outrage at Yassin’s killing.

A statement purporting to come from an al Qaida linked group and published on an Islamist Internet site vowed to attack Israel’s ally the US, which unlike many countries did not condemn the assassination.

The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade claimed responsibility for the Madrid attack on March 11.

US stocks and the dollar plunged as news of Yassin’s death added to market fears. Sentiment remained fragile today.

“The world is clearly a very unsettled and dangerous place and that’s demoralising to investors,” said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer at First Albany Corp. Israel stepped up strikes on militants after suicide bombers killed 10 people at Ashdod port last week. Sharon has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians until attacks on Israelis stop.

Some analysts predicted that instead of crushing Hamas, Yassin’s death would help recruit a new wave of fundamentalists at the expense of the more moderate Palestinian Authority.

Speaking in Gaza at mourning ceremonies for Yassin, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie called his killing an “ugly crime committed by the government of murderers, the government of Israel”.

Thousands of mourners streamed into the main stadium as a booming voice on loudspeakers called for revenge. Shops remained shuttered in Gaza and the West Bank as a mark of respect.

Polls showed about 60 per cent of Israelis approved of Yassin’s assassination, but over 80 per cent thought it would mean more militant attacks.

Many Israelis steered clear of crowded places today and embassies abroad were told to tighten security. But the head of military intelligence suggested militants could do no more than they were already doing to carry out attacks.

Newborn Yassins

“Sheikh Ahmed Yassin did not die. He was just born,” Ghada al-Khudari said today, holding her newborn son named after the Hamas militant leader.

To many Palestinians the frail cleric symbolised resistance to Israel’s grip on occupied territories and hospitals reported a flurry of newborn Ahmed Yassins after his assassination yesterday.

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