PA News Reporters / The Scotsman – 2004-03-22 17:37:58
http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=2683789Mon 22 Mar 2004
(March 22, 2004) — Britain today joined international condemnation of the killing of the spiritual head of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the targeted assassination by Israel of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as “unacceptable and unjustified.” Downing Street admitted the killing was a setback to hopes of reviving the Middle East peace process.
The British Government appealed for calm in the region as Hamas warned the act had “opened the gates of hell.” Yassin, who was accused by Jerusalem of being behind the campaign of suicide bomb attacks against Israeli targets, was killed by missiles from a helicopter gunship as he left a mosque in Gaza at daybreak today.
It was feared that his death would lead to a dramatic upsurge in violence in the Middle East, dashing any remaining hopes for the implementation of the US-backed Road Map for peace.
The wheelchair-bound cleric was revered throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and his death was expected to harden attitudes among Palestinian militants. Tens of thousands of mourners – many bearing the green banner of Hamas – took to the streets of Gaza City for his funeral procession this morning.
Mr Straw said he did not believe that Israel would benefit from the killing of an old man in a wheelchair. He said: “All of us understand Israel’s need to protect itself – and it is fully entitled to do that – against the terrorism which affects it, within international law. “But it is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we therefore condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”
The killing of Yassin was yet another blow to the US-sponsored “road map” for a Middle East peace settlement which Prime Minister Tony Blair has done his best to support.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “What has happened this morning is clearly a setback. There is no point pretending otherwise. We have repeatedly made clear our opposition to Israel’s use of targeted killings and assassinations. We recognise Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism, but equally any steps should be within international law and should be neither disproportionate nor excessive. What is most important is for both sides to show restraint and show through their words and deeds their commitment to peace and rejection of violence.”
EU Condemns Israel’s ‘Extra-judicial’ Killing
EU governments united in condemnation of the Israeli air strike. A statement issued in Brussels after talks between EU foreign ministers called it an “extra-judicial” killing. The meeting was held to discuss new measures to counter international terrorism in the wake of the Madrid train bombs.
The statement read: “Not only are extra-judicial killings contrary to international law, they undermine the concept of the rule of law which is a key element in the fight against terrorism.” Mr Straw said Israel was fully entitled to defend itself against terrorism “within international law”. He added: “But it is not entitled to carry out unlawful killings which are unacceptable, unjust, and very unlikely to achieve (Israel’s) objectives.”
The Foreign Secretary said the EU understood the “intensity of feeling” in Israel under provocation from terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas: “However, it is important that the response to terrorism is proportionate and within international law.
“This kind of so-called targeted killing or assassination is well outside international law. I believe it was impolitic. We have to try to ensure that there is, nonetheless, as calm a response as possible in the Arab world.”
The joint statement called on all sides “to exercise restraint and to refrain from acts of violence, which will only lead to more deaths and will put a peaceful settlement still further from reach”.
The killing was also condemned by the opposition parties. Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram said he “very much regretted” the latest escalation of violence. Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said the killing had put back any prospect of negotiation between the two sides.
In Brussels, Mr Straw and fellow EU foreign ministers were looking at ideas for enhancing counter-terrorism efforts which will be presented to EU leaders including Mr Blair at their summit in the Belgian capital on Thursday and Friday.
A package drafted by EU interior ministers last Friday would create an anti-terrorism co-ordinator at EU headquarters, and aims to increase pressure on laggards to follow through on measures they signed up to after September 11 2001, such as an EU arrest warrant.
Differences remain on intelligence-sharing between national police and security organisations. As well as endorsing the interior ministers’ proposals, the foreign ministers were considering what measures might be developed to combat terrorist activity beyond the EU’s borders.
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