Hamas targets Sharon to avenge Yassin
Palestinian militant group Hamas said Wednesday it had the right to target Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to avenge Israel's killing of its leader but reassured the United States it was not in the firing line.
Amplifying the mood of spiraling conflict, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, Yassin's successor in Gaza, urged attacks on Israelis everywhere -- a call Hamas officials later said was limited to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Israel has vowed to take out Rantissi and other militant chiefs. Ignoring international condemnation, it says it is defending itself against the masterminds of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was quoted as telling pan-Arab al-Hayat daily in Damascus that Hamas now had the right to "hunt down the big Zionist heads" including Sharon.
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, echoed the pledge.
"Wherever you find a Zionist kill him without hesitation," a masked al-Aqsa leader, identifying himself as Abu Qusai, told Reuters, repeating an order issued to the group's members.
Sharon's office declined to comment.
Security around Israeli leaders has been beefed up to levels not seen since after the 2001 killing of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in a Jerusalem hotel by gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The State Department told Americans Hamas had threatened revenge on U.S. interests after Yassin's death, urging them to leave Gaza and avoid traveling to Israel or the West Bank.
U.S. President Bush told reporters in Washington: "Whether it be a Hamas threat or an al Qaeda threat, we take them very seriously in this administration."
But Hamas officials later sought to reassure the United States, Israel's chief ally, that they would confine their armed struggle to the Jewish state and the Palestinian territories.
"It's not in our policy to target Americans or American interests," Hamas political leader Sayed Seyam told Reuters.
HAMAS VOWS "UNIQUE" ATTACK, ARAFAT URGES CALM
In what Palestinians called their biggest gathering ever, hundreds of members of the Hamas military wing paraded in Gaza City to mark the end of the formal mourning period for Yassin.
"Await a unique, unprecedented attack the likes of which the enemy has never seen," the masked master of ceremonies said in a speech, to cheers from onlookers numbering tens of thousands.
Arafat urged calm. "I am against any attacks on civilians, on Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians," he said.
Israel, which stepped up its hunt for militants after a double suicide bombing by Hamas and al-Aqsa last week killed 10 Israelis at a strategic port, dismissed Arafat's appeal.
"This is the most ludicrous statement ever made by the master of duplicity and the mastermind of the suicide bombing culture," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin. Israel accuses Arafat of fomenting violence. He denies it.
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights denounced Yassin's assassination as tragic. Washington said it was deeply troubled by the move, but unlike many nations stopped short of censure.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said the Israeli government was like a "terrorist organization" for assassinating militant leaders -- Egypt's strongest criticism of Israel in recent years.
Keeping tensions high in Gaza, 10 tanks rolled into the Khan Younis refugee camp and bulldozers razed several homes near a Jewish settlement before pulling back. About 60 families fled, witnesses said. A military source said troops destroyed abandoned buildings used by gunmen and militants firing rockets.
Yassin's death in an air strike sparked a shake-up in Hamas's hierarchy that tilted toward the most hard-line elements. Rantissi, 56, was named to head Hamas's Gaza powerbase, making him the pivotal figure in a group bent on destroying Israel.
Rantissi will answer to politburo chief Meshaal, the group's top political leader living in exile in Syria. Both have survived Israeli attempts on their lives.