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Leader says Hamas to stop firing rockets

An Islamic Jihad commander dies in Israeli strike

JERUSALEM -- After two days of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Israeli missile strikes, the leader of Hamas in Gaza announced yesterday that the group would stop firing rockets at Israel.

The statement was issued hours after Israeli forces killed a top commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza in an airborne attack.

The strike was the latest response to the firing of 35 rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot and neighboring areas Friday and Saturday.

The flare-up of violence was the worst since Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12, and it threatened to set back attempts to revive peace efforts after the pullout.

Mahmoud Zahar, the senior Hamas leader in Gaza, said the group would stop rocket attacks that began early Saturday after an explosion at a Hamas parade on Friday killed 16 Palestinians and wounded more than 80.

''The movement declares an end to its operations from the Gaza Strip against the Israeli occupation, which came . . . in response to the assaults by the enemy," Zahar told reporters in Gaza City.

Hamas contended that Friday's blast at the Jabaliya refugee camp, caused when a truck carrying rockets exploded, was the result of an Israeli missile strike. Israel said it was not involved, and the Palestinian Authority also dismissed the accusation.

Yesterday, an Israeli missile strike on a car on Gaza's coastal road killed Mohammed al-Sheikh Khalil, the leader of the armed wing of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Khalil's deputy was also killed, and four people were wounded, medics said.

The armed wing of Islamic Jihad vowed revenge, saying it would respond ''in the heart of Israel." Muhammad al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader, said the killing ended an informal truce Palestinian factions agreed to in late January.

The Israeli army said that Khalil had planned a series of deadly attacks on soldiers and settlers in the Gaza Strip that killed 19 Israelis since 2002. The killing of Khalil followed earlier airstrikes in response to the barrages of homemade Qassam rockets that wounded three people in Sderot.

Strikes early yesterday hit what the army said were weapons storage facilities and a school used by Hamas to train recruits. Nineteen Palestinians were wounded. Two Hamas militants were killed in a missile strike on their car Saturday.

In a show of force, Israel moved ground troops to the Gaza border as well as an artillery battery, which fired several test rounds into open fields in the northern Gaza Strip. More than 200 suspected militants, including prominent political leaders of Hamas, were rounded up in an arrest sweep across the West Bank.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at the weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, said that ''all means" would be used against the militants and that the army would carry out continuous operations against them.

Today, Sharon is facing a challenge for the leadership of the Likud Party from Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who has criticized the withdrawal from Gaza, saying it would only lead to more cross-border attacks.

At a gathering yesterday of the Likud central committee in Tel Aviv to set a date for party primaries, Sharon left the meeting hall after his microphone was cut off twice as he tried to address the raucous crowd. His aides accused his opponents of sabotaging the sound system.

Before Sharon spoke, Netanyahu assailed the Gaza withdrawal.

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