Top Gaza figure assassinated

AT LEAST 80 masked militants dragged the former Palestinian Authority security chief Musa Arafat from his Gaza City home and shot him dead in the street early yesterday, accentuating doubts about whether the authority can meet the challenge of governing the Gaza Strip after Israeli troops pull out next week.

The brazen assassination of Mr Arafat, military affairs adviser to the president, Mahmoud Abbas, and a cousin of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, sent shockwaves through the coastal enclave, both because of his senior position and its location, very close to a security forces headquarters and only 300-400 metres from Mr Abbas's residence.

His son, Manhal, an officer in the security forces, was abducted by the gunmen.

There were calls within the authority last night for Mr Abbas to sack the interior minister, Nasser Youssef, who oversees the security branches.

Although a firefight between the gunmen and Mr Arafat's guards raged for about half an hour, there was no intervention by the authority's security forces. "This is a challenge foremost to Abu Mazen's rule and to our ability to provide the rule of law and security," said Jibril Rajoub, an adviser to Mr Abbas, using his nickname.

The authority forces were put on a state of alert and Mr Abbas said all efforts were being made to arrest Mr Arafat's killers and free his son. The murder comes just days in advance of the Israeli army's withdrawal from Gaza after the evacuation of settlements last month and the handing over of the vacated territory to the Palestinians.

The Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, said yesterday the withdrawal would start on Monday, three days earlier than originally planned.

The assassination itself was a mixture of commando raid and mob hit. Before dawn, some 20 vehicles pulled up to Mr Arafat's home and gunmen alighted. They used rifles and anti-tank grenades against the guards, and after breaking through, shot Mr Arafat in front of his family before dragging him into the street and firing more bullets into his body.

The Gaza strongman, until April the director of the Military Intelligence security service, was renowned for being corrupt, and had enemies within the ruling Fatah movement, among rival security services and among other Palestinian factions, including Hamas. He was shot a total of 23 times.

The attack was claimed by the shadowy Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). "We have executed the will of God and the rule of law because he killed people, ordered assaults on fighters and had a big file of corruption," said a PRC spokesman, Abu Abir. He said Manhal Arafat was being questioned.

The PRC was formed after the outbreak of the intifada in 2000 by a powerful clan, the Abu Samhadana family. It includes former Fatah members but also has links with Hamas.

It has specialised in roadside bombs against Israeli targets. In 2003, Palestinian forces arrested several PRC members, accusing them of being responsible for blowing up a US diplomatic convoy in northern Gaza.

Three security guards were killed in that attack. Mr Arafat's forces had in the past clashed with the PRC.

Mr Arafat survived several previous assassination attempts, including the 24 July, 2003 firing of a missile towards his office in Gaza City. A member of the old guard that arrived in Gaza from Tunis as part of the 1993 Oslo agreement, he oversaw a crackdown against Hamas in 1996. He was removed from his post as director of military intelligence in April as part of steps by Mr Abbas to placate critics of Palestinian Authority corruption.

But many Gaza residents wondered why he was allowed to continue serving as an adviser to the president.

Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, called the attack "unprecedented".