Israeli security sources told Reuters that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personally ordered and monitored the helicopter attack against the paralyzed cleric, whose wheelchair lay smashed in a pool of blood after three missiles exploded.
After the first missile hit, a witness told the news service: “I looked to see where Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was. He was lying on the ground and his wheelchair was destroyed. People there darted left and right. Then another two missiles landed.”
At least seven other people died in the Gaza strike and two of Yassin’s sons were among 15 wounded.
The 67-year-old Yassin was a high-profile leader in the Hamas movement and has long been considered an enemy by Israeli officials who have compared him to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
More than 200,000 Palestinians, some carrying Hamas flags, flooded the streets for Yassin’s funeral procession, the largest gathering in Gaza City in recent memory. Thousands also took to the streets in the West Bank.
“Sharon, start preparing your body bags because (Hamas’s) Qassam Brigades will put Israeli houses in mourning and make a funeral in every Israeli street,” the crowd chanted.
At the cemetery, Yassin’s body was carried between two rows of 200 militants armed with anti-tank missiles and machine guns.
“Words cannot describe the emotion of anger and hate inside our hearts,” said Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh, a close associate of Yassin.
The Israeli army sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip to stop any Palestinians entering Israel, wire services reported.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Yassin the “mastermind of Palestinian terror” and a “mass murderer who is among Israel’s greatest enemies.”
“The war against terror has not ended and will continue day after day, everywhere,” Sharon said.
The Palestinian Authority said in a statement that “Israel has exceeded all red lines with this cheap and dirty crime,” and declared a three-day mourning period.
Flags at Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah were lowered to half-staff, and the Palestinian Cabinet held an emergency session.
The assassination was widely condemned in the Arab world and by some European countries. Egypt canceled a trip by legislators and other officials to Israel, which had been planned for later this month to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the assassination “is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”
U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Washington had “no advance warning” of the attack and that she knew of no consultations between President Bush and Sharon about any plan to target the sheik.
But Rice, asked about U.S. reaction to the attack during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, said, “Let’s remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization and that Sheik Yassin has himself, personally, we believe, been involved in terrorist planning.”
A week ago, the Bush administration had warned that meaningful peace talks progress in Mideast peacemaking would be very difficult unless Palestinian leaders cracked down on terror groups. This followed two suicide bombings in Israel.
Peace mediators from the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union called an emergency meeting in Cairo on Monday to discuss the attack.