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Israeli Helicopters Launch Attack On Terrorist Car, Kill at Least Two

By Mitchell Landsberg
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- jerusalem

Israeli helicopters launched a missile attack Thursday aimed at the man who has long been deemed Israel’s most wanted terrorist, striking a car and killing at least two people inside. But the militant group Hamas denied that leader Mohammed Deif was among the dead.

Two missiles struck the olive-green Mercedes-Benz on a crowded street in Gaza City, turning the car into a smoldering heap of twisted metal and body parts. Forty bystanders were injured, among them 15 children, hospital officials said.

Hamas said two of its members inside the car and a bystander were killed. Israeli television showed scenes captured minutes after the attack in which a third man was shown being pulled from the back seat of the Mercedes. It was not clear whether he was alive.

“Deif was not in the car, thank God,” said Hamas spokesman Abdulaziz Rantisi, who nevertheless vowed revenge against the Israelis. “We’ll hit them everywhere,” he said.

Israeli officials clung to the hope that Deif was dead, but they acknowledged that they had not been able to confirm what happened to him. Late Thursday, Israeli TV quoted unidentified security officials as saying “the probability is high” that he was killed.

Deif, head of the Hamas military wing in the Gaza Strip, has been Public Enemy No. 1 in Israel for six years -- ever since his predecessor at the top of the wanted list, bombmaker Yehiya Ayash, known as the “Engineer,” was killed by a booby-trapped cellular telephone. No one has ever claimed responsibility, but it has been widely assumed that the phone bomb was the work of Israeli intelligence.

“Look, he’s the most important army commander in Hamas,” said Yohanan Tsoref, a research fellow at Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. “He is the most important not only from the professional point of view but from the symbolic point of view.”