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Criticism Rains Down on Sharon Government

An Israeli missile attack that killed the top commander of Hamas as well as nine children has caused outrage in the international community and prompted vows of revenge from the Palestinian militant group.

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A man under diplomatic fire

The militant Islamic organization Hamas has vowed revenge for an Israeli rocket attack which killed its top commander and 14 others, including many children.

Tuesday's attack also prompted international criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government. American President George W. Bush said he would formally complain to Sharon about the attack, which the White House called "heavy-handed."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a sometime negotiator in the Middle East, called the missile attack "inacceptable."

"The German government ... deeply regrets that by the Israeli action innocent people, above all children, were killed," he said in a statement.

Two babies, six children among the dead

The overnight air strike which destroyed five houses in the Bouraj residential area killed at least 15 people, including two babies and six children, and wounded almost 150 others.

Hamas officials later confirmed that Shehada, along with his wife and a daughter, had indeed been killed.

Salah Shehada was head of the Islamic movement's Izz el-Deen al-Qassam brigades, blamed for dozens of Israeli deaths in suicide attacks since the start of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in September 2000.

Hamas has now sworn revenge and within hours of the attack hundreds of Hamas supporters took to the streets, shouting "Death to Israel! Death to America!" and punctuating their chants with bursts of machine gun fire.

Attack disrupts relative calm

Israel has described the attack as self-defence following a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Sharon congratulated his forces on the air strike, which he described as a "great success". He expressed regret for the civilian deaths, but said there could be no "compromise with terror".

The air strike has drawn swift condemnation from the rest of the international community, which fears a bloody resurgence of violence after a month of relative calm. The strike came a day after Hamas' wheelchair-bound spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said the organization would consider halting suicide attacks if Israel withdrew from the West Bank.

UN Chief Spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a statement, "The Secretary General (Kofi Anan) calls on the government of Israel to halt such actions and to conduct itself in a manner that is fully consistent with international humanitarian law".

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told the BBC that the attack was a "despicable" war crime that dealt a blow to peacemaking. Palestinian officials said they will file a case in the International Criminal Court and make a formal complaint before the UN security council.

Air strike follows top-level meetings with US

The Israeli attack comes just a day after US Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice went over a plan to restructure and reform Palestinian security forces with two senior Israeli officials.

The plan based on the ideas of CIA Director George Tenet aims to persuade the Israelis that a restructured Palestinian security force can protect them from attacks by Palestinian militants.

The plan also borrows elements from a blueprint drawn up by German minister Fischer earlier this month fleshing out ideas introduced by US President Bush in his by now controversial Middle East speech last month. But US officials are still keeping the details under wraps.

Earlier the US also pressed Israel to release $20 million (20.2 million euros) in Palestinian tax revenues frozen after a Palestinian uprising against occupation flared in 2000.

EU urges Israel to exercise restraint just a day earlier

In its final monthly meeting before its summer break, the EU urged Israel on Monday not to deport the relatives of Palestinian suicide bombers to the Gaza strip.

"We are against collective punishment," Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller told a news conference. The EU also emphasised the need for simultaneous progress on political, economic and security issues to end violence in the Middle East and promote democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority.

The EU also called on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas reoccupied during the Palestinian intifada to enable Palestinian elections.

"You can’t have elections with Israeli tanks on the street", Moller said.

The latest Israeli missile attack on the Gaza strip is seen by political experts as a blow to a shaky Middle East peace process that seems to be finally getting back on track with renewed US and EU initiatives to find a lasting solution.

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