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Ailing Hamas founder freed as part of trade

Israel freed the ailing founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas from prison Wednesday and sent him to Jordan in a reported deal to win the freedom of two Israeli agents held in Amman.

The release of Sheik Ahmed Yassin came a day after Jordan's King Hussein urged Israel to free the quadriplegic 61-year-old Hamas leader who had served eight years of a life term.Israel radio said Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan visited Israel secretly on Sunday and closed the deal under which Yassin was freed in exchange for two alleged agents of Israel's Mossad secret service held by Jordan in the attempted assassination last week of another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Amman.

Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel refused comment on Yassin's release and the reported swap. Yassin's release was apparently timed to coincide with the start of the Jewish New Year, a three-day holiday in Israel during which there would be little public reaction, including criticism from hardliners.

Hamas leaders, who initially condemned Yassin's exile to Jordan, welcomed the move Wednesday after being assured by Hussein that Yassin was free to return to his Gaza home any time he wished.

Speaking to reporters in Gaza by phone from Amman, Yassin said: "We salute you and all the Palestinian people in the occupied land and, God willing, we will meet soon on our soil." The phone call took place during a Hamas news conference in Gaza City.

A Hamas political leader in Amman, Mousa Abu Marzook, said the group would continue its attacks on Israel. "We will resist occupation until it is removed," Abu Marzook, who was at Yassin's bedside, told the Gaza news conference by phone. "If there is no occupation, there is no resistance."

The United States Wednesday welcomed Israel's release of the ailing founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as President Clinton met Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan in Washington.