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Top Bomber for Hamas Reported Dead in W. Bank


JERUSALEM — A body found at the scene of an exploded car in the West Bank city of Ramallah was identified Wednesday as the master bomb maker for the militant Hamas movement who had topped Israel's most-wanted list.

Mohiedin Sharif died of two gunshot wounds in the chest earlier this week, and his body was placed next to the explosives-laden car before it was detonated, Palestinian officials and family members said.

Hamas leaders quickly blamed Israel for the "terrorist operation" against Sharif--who was believed to be the technician behind a wave of suicide bombings that claimed dozens of Israeli lives in the past two years--and the Islamic extremists opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process vowed revenge against Israel.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied any involvement by his government in the killing. "We had nothing to do with this," he said. "I can say with certainty that Israel had no part in it."

Sharif, 32, a Jerusalem resident, was seen as the successor to Yehiya Ayash, known as "the Engineer," who was killed in the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip in 1996 with an exploding cellular telephone planted by Israeli agents. Dubbed "Engineer II," Sharif was a member of Hamas' Iziddin al-Qassam military wing, which apparently bypasses the local Hamas leadership and takes orders directly from hard-line leaders in exile.

Sharif had been in hiding since July 1995, when he escaped seconds before Israeli forces arrived at his home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.

His brother Ishaq said Israeli intelligence agents came to their parents' home in Beit Hanina early Wednesday morning with a picture of the corpse for the family to identify. "My brother Ibrahim said he could only be 60% or 70% sure, but they [the Israelis] said, 'We are 100% sure,' " Ishaq Sharif said.

Palestinian intelligence officials arrived hours later to take the family to view the charred body at a morgue in Ramallah. "I saw two bullet holes in the chest, and the doctor told us that he was killed three hours before the explosion," said Saleh Sharif, the fugitive's cousin. "The doctors said there was a third bullet hole in the leg."

Ishaq Sharif said doctors told the family that the bullets came from a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

Palestinian police originally thought the explosion in an industrial area of Ramallah on Sunday was a car bomb--intended for use in an attack in Israel but detonated prematurely. Israeli officials had cited this incident as evidence that the Palestinians were not cracking down on terrorism as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met with U.S. envoy Dennis B. Ross to try to hammer out an agreement for an Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

Now, Palestinian police are investigating the possibility that the bomb was exploded intentionally to make it appear as if Sharif died in a work-related accident. They say it may have been detonated by remote control, suggesting the kind of sophistication used in the Ayash killing. "Palestinian intelligence officials told us that this was possibly a liquidation by the Israeli intelligence," Ishaq Sharif said.

But Israeli television reported that agents "who winked" when denying the Ayash killing are adamant that this was not an operation by Israel's Shin Bet security force, noting that homemade explosives were used in this blast. The agents also expressed anger at the Palestinians for seeking to blame Israel for the killing rather than explaining how yet another Hamas bomb factory had operated under their noses.

The Palestinians had let Israeli security agents into the area of the bombing Tuesday and possibly to view the body. They are not commenting officially until the investigation is completed.

An agent with the Palestinian General Intelligence Service said only, "We believe the body was shot somewhere else and brought to the garage, and the car was blown up."

The garage where the blast occurred had been rented by known Hamas militants, feeding speculation among some Israelis and Palestinians that Mohiedin Sharif was killed by a Hamas faction. Another theory: Agents loyal to Arafat killed Sharif to try to put an end to the Hamas military infrastructure.

But in view of the Ayash assassination and a bungled attempt by Israel's external intelligence force, the Mossad, on the life of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in September, the more widely held view among Palestinians was that Israel had a hand in the killing.

Israelis expressed pleasure at the news--no matter who was responsible.

"I don't know whether congratulations are due in Hebrew or in Arabic, but whoever brought about his demise deserves all the praise and thanks of all Israel," said Ephraim Sneh, a member of parliament for the opposition Labor Party.

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