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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Hamas Founder Shaikh Yassin Killed By Israeli Strike

Aired March 22, 2004 - 00:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ALLISON BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well our Paula Hancocks is in the CNN Jerusalem bureau, let's go to her now for the very latest. Paula, has there been any respondent yet from Israel?
PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Allison, yes. So, we're just hearing that the Israeli army is actually sealing off the West Bank and Gaza into Israel at the moment. A natural reaction, we can imagine, when they do see thousands of Palestinians taking to the streets as they are at the moment, in the reaction to the death of Shaikh Ahmed Yassin.

Now, he was the most high profile figure, so far, to be killed by these so-called targeted killings by Israeli forces. These assassinations that they have been carrying out since the Intifada started back in September 2000. But over the last 3 1/2 years, he is by far the highest profile member that they have killed and targeted so far.

The spiritual leader of Hamas, the founder of Hamas, he founded back in 1987. There's been a lot of reaction coming in. We're still waiting for an official reaction to the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. They are refusing to comment at the moment.

But we do have the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei saying this is a crazy and very dangerous act, it opens the door wide to chaos.

And also we have a reaction from the Hamas political leader and spokesman, Abdel Aziz Rantisi and this is what he said...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABDEL AZIZ RANTISI, HAMAS POLITICAL SPOKESMAN: They tried to assassinate the diginity of our nation, the rights of our Palestinian people and building their state on their home, the right of Palestinians in their home place, in Jerusalem, in al Aqsa. So they are not assassinating Shaikh Ahmen Yassin, only they are trying everything. Now, we are saying to those murderers, to the terrorists, the war is opened, there will be no revenge, it is an open war.

I know that they will succeed in assassinating the political leaders. The military leaders, but they will not keep security, only outside our home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HANCOCKS: Abdel Aziz Rantisi there, the Hamas spokesman and political leader. I've also reaction from Israel's deputy defense minister, saying, Yassin had been marked for death for a long time. Yassin and the others were behind the terror frame work in the Gaza strip.

Now, Allison, we are also just hearing from the Israeli defense forces that they have closed off the Gaza strip to media as well. They are closing off the West Bank and the Gaza for Palestinians, so no Palestinians will be able to cross over into Israel. They have closed off both these borders. Obviously, worried about some reprisals from what has happened this morning.

You can see tens of thousands of Palestinians in the streets in Gaza City, commemorating Shaikh Ahmed Yassin. He was very respected, very loved within the Palestinian community, within the Hamas community as well -- Allison.

BELL: Paula, as you mentioned you earlier, back in January, Israel pledged to eliminate Shaikh Yassin, saying he was marked for death. What sort of protection was Shaikh Yassin surrounded by?

HANCOCKS: Well, he would have had bodyguards around him. In fact, some of those bodyguards were killed along side him today. But there's a limited amount of protection you can have from an Israeli attack helicopter that is going to fire a missile at you. He was targeted as he was coming out of a mosque for pre-dawn prayers.

So this is something, obviously, that he has to do. So is was very difficult to protect himself from something like this.

Now, Shaikh Yassin has been in and out of Israeli prisons for many years. He was also targeted by Israeli defense forces back in September 2003. They sent a missile onto his house where he was meeting other Hamas leaders. Now he managed to escape from that relatively unharmed.

Now this time though, he has been killed this Monday morning. Three missile attacks from the Israeli attack helicopters early on, predawn, as he was coming out of that mosque.

And as you can see, there are thousands of militants in the street. This has happened in the past as well. The first time that there was an attempt on Shaikh Yassin's life, he came out into the streets and vowed revenge for the attempted assassination and there were thousands of Palestinians that came to hear him. They were cheering. They were applauding.

So, this just demonstrates the amount of respect and loyalty that Shaikh Yassin does carry within the Hamas group and also within Gaza City itself -- Allison.

BELL: Paula, I'm not sure at this stage whether you can hear me, unfortunately, I can hear you. But we will soldier on as best we can. Militant groups have been attempting to exert their influence in the run up to the expected Israeli withdrawal from the territory. Can you give us some idea of where the Gaza pull out talks stand right now, within the Israeli cabinet? HANCOCKS: Well, just yesterday, Allison, on Sunday, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister met with his Likud Party cabinet members to discuss this disengagement plan. Now, he still does not have an exact plan in mind as far as where -- hearing. It's still being hammered out and yesterday was a chance for some of his ministers to give alternative plans.

Now, what he is going to do is by the end of the month or by the beginning the next month go to the United States and present his plan to the U.S. president George Bush. And then, if it's approved by George Bush, bring is back to the cabinet here.

Now, what we are expecting, is that he will withdraw the majority, or all of the Jewish settlements within Gaza, that's about 21 settlements. And we expecting he will pull out most of those, at least that was the plan. And also, some from the northern area off of the West Bank. We don't have exact details of that though, as Ariel Sharon is still hammering out that plan.

But this really does put into question what exactly what will happen with that withdrawal. If there is a violent reaction, how soon with Israelis be able to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Also in the past, Ariel Sharon, and many experts have been saying, there's a worry that if Israeli forces and Israeli settlements pull out of the Gaza Strip, that means there could be a power vacuum there, which if the Palestinian authority is not strong enough to fill, could be filled by the likes of Hamas. And that is a serious worry that Ariel Sharon does have.

And we have been told, is one of the reasons he is stepping up these targeted killings, as the Israeli calls them, or assassinations at the moment -- Allison.

BELL: All right. Paula Hancocks, for the moment.

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