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Israel's tourism minister killed in shooting claimed by Palestinian militants

JERUSALEM (AP) - One or more gunmen, lurking in a hotel hallway, shot and killed an Israeli Cabinet minister on Wednesday with three bullets to the head and neck. A radical Palestinian faction said it carried out the assassination to avenge the killing of its leader by Israel two months ago.

The killing of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, 75, who advocated the ouster of all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, threatened to re-ignite the cycle of violence that has wracked the holy land for the last year.

It came at a time when the U.S.-supported Sept. 26 cease-fire appeared to be holding in many areas.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened Cabinet ministers for urgent consultations. The attack came a day after Sharon outlined his position in future peace talks, saying he was willing to negotiate an accord that includes a Palestinian state, but would dictate strict limitations that Palestinians have already rejected.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's government issued a statement saying it condemned the killing and remained committed to a truce with Israel.

The Palestinian Authority said it had warned in the past about the dangers of assassination, suggesting Israel's targeted killings of Palestinian militants accused of attacks on Israelis could lead to escalation.

In the past year of fighting, Israel has killed more than 50 Palestinians, including several bystanders, in such attacks.

The highest-ranking target so far has been Mustafa Zibri, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was killed Aug. 27 in an Israeli rocket attack on his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The PFLP on Wednesday claimed responsibility for the killing of Zeevi, saying it came as revenge for the death of its leader, widely known as Abu Ali Mustafa.

``Sharon has to know that Palestinian blood is not cheap and that those who target the leaders of the Palestinian people are not safe from being targeted and assassinated themselves,'' the PFLP said in a leaflet sent to news agencies.

Sharon said earlier this week that he would not abandon the targeted killings, despite the truce and sharp U.S. condemnation of the practice.

Zeevi was staying with his wife at the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday. At about 7 a.m., he was returning from the hotel restaurant to his eighth-floor room when he was attacked outside his room, police said. He was shot three times in the head and face. Zeevi's wife, Yael, found him in the hallway, lying on his back in a pool of blood, witnesses said.

A fellow hotel guest, Rev. David Hocking, said he rushed into the hall after hearing Mrs. Zeevi's screams. ``I saw her kneeling over him. He had obviously been shot. The blood was everywhere,'' said Hocking, who is leading a Christian tour group from Orange County, Calif.

Zeevi was clinically dead when he arrived at Hadassah Hospital, said Shmuel Shapira, the deputy director. Doctors managed to restore a heartbeat at one point, but after about three hours abandoned efforts to revive Zeevi.

At Ein el-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, about 40 PFLP supporters with guns and pictures of Zibri danced and distributed sweets after hearing about Zeevi's shooting. Cheers intensified with the news that he had died.

Britain condemned Zeevi's killing and called for intensified efforts to revive the Middle East peace process. ``The murder this morning is absolutely appalling and it just refocuses the need to get the peace process moving again,'' said a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Zeevi, a retired army general, was widely respected, even by political opponents, for his distinguished war record, but his advocacy of what he called the ``transfer'' of Palestinians across the borders into neighboring Arab countries was condemned by many as racist.

``I had enormous respect for him even though we didn't agree on politics,'' said Science Minister Matan Vilnai, also a retired general, who served under Zeevi in the paratroops. ``His personal loyalty knew no bounds.''

Born in Jerusalem, Zeevi served from 1974 to 1977 as adviser to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the war against terrorism. He opposed Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and in 1988 founded the far-right Moledet Party that called for the ``voluntary transfer'' of Arabs from Israeli-controlled territory.

Zeevi sparked controversy in July for referring to Palestinians working and living illegally in Israel as ``lice'' and a ``cancer.''

He was widely known by the incongruous nickname ``Gandhi,'' acquired because his youthful thinness reminded people of the pacifist Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.

On Monday, Zeevi and other members of the National Union, a bloc of two small parties, said they were quitting Sharon's government. Zeevi and his allies argued Sharon was succumbing to U.S. pressure and that his policies toward the Palestinians were too soft.

The exit of the National Union, which controls seven seats in the 120-member parliament, did not endanger Sharon's coalition government. However, Sharon, a hard-liner, now becomes more dependent on the moderate Labor Party.

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