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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 22:35 GMT 23:35 UK
Bystander killed in Israeli air strike
Palestinians with destroyed car
The vehicle's occupants escaped

A bystander has been killed and at least 20 wounded in an Israeli missile strike on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

The three Hamas members managed to flee their car before it was hit by three or four missiles in a busy street north of Gaza City.

The 64-year-old bystander died was the only fatality in the attack at the Jabaliya refugee camp, hospital sources said.

It was the third strike in five days by Israeli forces on Hamas targets, and follows the suicide bombing by Palestinian militants of a bus in Jerusalem that killed 21 people.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, otherwise known as Abu Mazen, condemned the Israeli attack, saying it undermined his attempts to curb the militants.

But Israel says it has no choice, and has denounced Palestinian leaders for failing to dismantle the armed groups - as laid out in the US-backed roadmap to peace.

The Israeli army said the target of the Gaza raid had been Hamas member Khaled Massoud, whom it said was behind rocket attacks on Israel.

Hamas said Mr Massoud was moderately wounded as he fled the scene of the attack along with fellow member Wael Ekalan.

'Enormous panic'

Eyewitness Shadi Tayan said: "The people in the car jumped out and ran in two different directions," after one rocket hit close to the front of the car.

"There was enormous panic - women and children screaming and weeping," said another witness, Akran Lubad, whose T-shirt was bloodstained from helping the injured.

Doctors said many women and children were among the wounded, including an eight-year-old girl who is said to be in a critical condition.

A demonstration erupted shortly after the strike with youths jumping on top of the targeted battered white Renault vehicle, shouting "Revenge, revenge".

The strike happened as Abu Mazen arrived in Gaza to consult other Palestinian leaders about the escalating violence.

Condemning the attacks he said: "This brutal Israeli Government policy will only take us back to the vicious circle of violence.

"Israel must understand that there is no military solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

'Weakened' leadership

However, he is under pressure from the White House, which has backed Israel's right to self-defence and put the onus on Abu Mazen to rein in the militants.

The BBC's David Chazan says few Palestinians believe the radicals will heed a call for restraint by Abu Mazen - who has been weakened by a power struggle with Yasser Arafat over control of the Palestinian security apparatus - while Israel continues to target them.

Last Thursday, a similar helicopter gunship attack killed top Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab, and his two bodyguards. Four members were killed in a strike on Sunday.

Earlier on Tuesday, Israeli troops snatched two Palestinian militants from a hospital in the West Bank city of Nablus, after they were wounded in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops.

Many Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants are said to have gone into hiding following the Israeli threat, and leaflets have reportedly been hung in Gaza mosques instructing activists to take precautions.

The advice includes not travelling in groups, avoid using their telephones, disguising themselves and staying away from main streets.


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