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Hamas founder killed in Israeli airstrike

Car hit by rockets as Yassin left mosque

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CNN's Paula Hancocks reports on the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
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Ahmed Yassin

(CNN) -- Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed in an Israeli airstrike Monday morning as he was leaving a Gaza City mosque.

Seven others were killed in the strike, Palestinian officials said. Sixteen people were wounded in the attack, including two of Yassin's sons; seven of the wounded were in critical condition, hospital spokesmen said.

Palestinian security sources told CNN that Yassin's car and vehicles carrying his bodyguards were hit by three rockets as he was leaving a mosque after morning prayers. He was heading to his home, a short distance away.

Thousands of Palestinians marched and chanted in the streets of Gaza City soon after the attack.

Black smoke rose over sections of Gaza City as Palestinians burned tires, and explosions could be heard. Hamas gunmen fired weapons into the air, promising revenge against Israel.

"We condemn the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin," the Palestinian Authority said in a statement. "It is a crime. It's a cowardly act. It shows that Israel has chosen the path of more violence and further escalation."

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said: "This morning, in a security forces operation in the Northern Gaza Strip, the IDF targeted a car carrying the head of the Hamas terror organization, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and his aides.

"Yassin, responsible for numerous murderous terror attacks, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, both Israeli and foreign, was killed in the attack. The Hamas leadership, led by Yassin, was directly involved in planning, directing and launching terror attacks carried out by the organization.

"The Hamas leadership is also responsible for the cooperation with the other terror organizations. Following the attack, a complete closure was imposed on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank."

The Palestinian militant group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a nationalist military offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, promised to wage war against Israel and attack Israeli settlements.

Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli troops protecting the Gush Katif settlement in southern Gaza, Israeli officials said.

A Qassam rocket was fired Monday into the Erez industrial zone at the border crossing between Gaza and Israel, a Hamas spokesman told CNN. There were no reports of casualties.

And in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian armed with an axe attacked Israelis, authorities reported. There were no serious injuries. The Palestinian was arrested.

'Violence will breed violence'

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat deplored Yassin's killing as part of a "vicious cycle."

"I think the whole situation is going down the drain," Erakat said. "I think any time you have such things as the crime this morning, this will mean that things will be slipping outside our fingers like sand."

He called on the international community to step in and revive the peace process.

Mourners hold aloft a coffin during the funeral Monday of those killed in the Israeli airstrike.

"Where do we go with this vicious cycle?" Erakat asked. "Bullets will breed bullets. Violence will breed violence.

"It's more of the same. We break this vicious cycle only through reviving hope in the minds of people that peace is doable."

Hours after the Yassin's killing, crowds gathered at al Shefaa hospital to retrieve his body for his funeral and burial. Thousands marched throught the streets of Gaza City, holding aloft the coffins of Yassin and the others killed in the airstrike.

Sentenced to life, freed under terms of deal

Yassin founded Hamas in 1987, during the Palestinian intifada. Hamas is an Islamic fundamentalist organization whose military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has carried out attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets. The U.S. State Department and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

An Israeli court convicted Yassin in 1989 of ordering Hamas members to kidnap and kill two Israeli soldiers.

He was sentenced to life in prison but was freed in 1997 under the terms of a deal arranged by King Hussein of Jordan, who asked Israel to release Yassin in exchange for two Israeli Mossad agents who had attempted to kill Khalid Mishaal, a Hamas leader, in Jordan.

The Palestinian Authority had placed Yassin under house arrest on a number of occasions since his release, most recently in December 2001, after a series of terror attacks that killed 25 Israelis.

That detention triggered demonstrations and clashes with Palestinian police.

Yassin was born in 1938 in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His family became refugees in Gaza during the violence that followed Israel's creation in 1948.

Targeted last year

In September, Yassin, who used a wheelchair, was lightly wounded in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City. At the time he vowed that "jihad will continue."

Thousands of Palestinian Hamas supporters marched through the streets in support of Yassin after the strike last year.

Monday's airstrike was part of stepped-up operations launched by Israel in the aftermath of a terrorist bus bombing that killed eight people February 22 in Jerusalem. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility.

Al Aqsa Brigades has attacked military and civilian targets in Israel, and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel and the U.S. State Department consider it a terrorist organization.

Israel says the operations are meant to target terrorists preparing to take part in attacks on Israelis. Several Palestinians have died in the operations, including civilians.

Last week, twin suicide bombings jointly claimed by Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades killed 10 people in the Israeli port city of Ashdod.

Immediately after the terrorist bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled a planned meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei.

The scheduled talks were an attempt to revive the so-called "road map" to Mideast peace.

The plan, backed by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, calls for steps by both sides aimed at ending the conflict and establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Phase one of the plan calls on Palestinians to end their attacks and Israel to freeze settlement activity and dismantle settlements erected since March 2001.

Israel seized Gaza in 1967 during the Six-Day War and began building settlements there soon after the conflict.

In 1994, under the Oslo Accords, Israel ceded most of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority but kept control of the coastline, borders and 24 Jewish settlements, where about 7,500 Israelis live in heavily guarded enclaves.

Gaza is separated from Israel by a fence, but Israeli troops remain in the area to guard the settlements.

Palestinians have formal self-rule over 58 percent of Gaza, according to the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

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