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The White House early Sunday declined to criticize Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Raziz Rantisi, saying instead that Israel "has the right to defend itself from terrorist attacks" and urging restraint in the region.

"The United States is gravely concerned for regional peace and stability," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The United States strongly urges Israel to consider carefully the consequences of its actions, and we again urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint at this time."

A U.S. State Department official earlier denied that Washington had given the green light for the deadly missile strike as many Arabs have alleged about other similar attacks.

"There's been no change in our policy. We think Israel should bear in mind the consequences of what its doing and we also think the Palestinians should get a handle on terrorism," said the official, who asked not to be named.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia on Saturday said that Rantisi's assassination was a "direct result" of encouragement from the United States.

"The Palestinian cabinet considers this terrorist Israeli campaign is a direct result of American encouragement and the complete bias of the American administration towards the Israeli government," he said.

Hezbollah vowed on Sunday that "armed struggle is the only way to stop the Zionist aggression."

"We think that Hamas will continue the armed struggle until victory and avenge the blood of the martyrs and liberate the land and the people of Palestine," said a Hezbollah statement.

The statement also accused the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush of "securing the cover for the murders in Israel" and said "we hold the Americans directly responsible for this crime."

The statement called on Arab nations to stand by the Palestinian people and end "this genocide against the Palestinians on the hands of Zionists."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said Saturday that "the perfidious assassination" of Rantisi shows the real intentions of Israel, and would only widen the circle of violence.

It "reaffirms that Israel uses the chance to fool the world, kill all chances of peace and drive the region to the abyss," Egypt's Middle East News agency quoted Maher as saying.

Rantisi was killed by a missile strike on his car in the Gaza Strip, the powerbase of the Palestinian Islamic militant group where he had been the top official.

Japan, Syria, Yemen and Iran on Sunday all joined the international condemnation of the assassination. Yemen warned the killing will "stir up revenge," while Japan condemned the death as a "thoughtless and unjustifiable" act.

The Egyptian parliament blasted the attack as a "stupid act" that would lead to a "catastrophe." A statement carried by MENA said Israel's acts "put a great barrier against realizing any peace in the region."

In Jordan, whose King Abdullah II is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Bush on Wednesday, government spokeswoman Asma Khader condemned the killing as an "ugly crime" that "diminishes hopes in achieving peace in the region."

Hossam Zaki, spokesman for the Arab League, said the assassination puts an end to all peace efforts, and its timing suggests that the United States has endorsed the killing.

"This is state terrorism again," he said in Cairo. "This is an (Israeli) conviction (put) into action ... that this conflict will be settled by the use of force, which they apply whenever they can."

Lebanese Culture Minister Ghazi al-Aridi told Al-Jazeera that Rantisi's killing was "a terrorist act par excellence for which the U.S. Administration and the Israeli government must be held responsible."

Israel said it had killed a "mastermind of terrorism" by assassinating Rantisi and vowed to keep up strikes on militant leaders.

"Israel... today struck a mastermind of terrorism, with blood on his hands," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled told Reuters. "As long as the Palestinian Authority does not lift a finger and fight terrorism, Israel will continue to have to do so itself," he said.

Labor Chairman and Opposition leader Shimon Peres stopped short of expressing support for the assassination, but said that, "whoever deals in death pays the price."

"This is not a type of operation we are enthusiastic to carry out, we do it because we have no choice. We must fight terror with all our strength but we must also tell the Palestinians that terror is also their enemy, not only ours," said the veteran politician.

Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin on Sunday expressed his amazement at Peres's support for Rantisi's assassination, citing the Labor leader's objection to the killing of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. Beilin told Israel Radio that Peres's intention to join the coalition affected his response. Peres, in return, called Beilin's statements 'primitive.'

"This is a man whose gloating face appeared on television every time there was a suicide bombing that killed women and children and babies in Israel," said Israel's ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Gillerman.

"I think that the demise of this man, the fact that he is no longer with us, is very good news for the freedom loving world, for the war against terror and in fact should be greeted with very great satisfaction by the moderate Arab states," Gillerman added.

But the chair of the Yahad (formerly Meretz) faction, MK Zahava Gal-On, expressed doubt about the timing of the assassination, coming a few days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met U.S. President George W. Bush on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Gal-On said that the assassination was designed to wipe out opposition within the Likud to Sharon's disengagement plan. "Apparently there is no real intention to leave Gaza," she said.

A senior Palestinian Authority official condemned the killing of the Hamas leader as "state terror."

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this Israeli crime and state terror. It is evident now to the world that the Palestinian people need international protection more than ever," Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat said.

Speaking to CNN, Erekat expressed concern that Israel would now target PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. He said that acts of revenge would not serve either side, and warned that Israel and the Palestinians were in a "lose-lose" situation.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath also attributed the decision to assassinate Rantisi on what the Palestinians believe is a forgiving American attitude toward Israel.

"I completely condemn this Israeli crime of cold blooded killing in front of the whole world, while America gives it bits of our land and our refugees' rights. The mercy of God upon Rantisi... Israel commits crimes and is rewarded by the American president. When it commits state terrorism, it gets promises."

"Israel has been given a free hand [by the United States] to continue its policy of destruction, of siege, of assassination," said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.

"Right now what is happening is very dangerous. You are closing off all options. You are saying to the Palestinians you have no political recourse, no recourse to the law, no justice anywhere."

In its condemnation of the attack, Arab League also said that the killing was "state terrorism."

"This is clear proof that Israel cannot live in a climate of stability," said League spokesman Hossam Zaki. "They do not want a climate of stability. They need a climate of tension and violence."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned Israel's killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on Saturday, saying the assassination could lead to more violence in the Middle East.

"The secretary-general condemns Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi," a spokesman for Annan said in a statement. "He reiterates that extrajudicial killings are violations of international law and calls on the government of Israel to immediately end this practice."

"He (Annan) is apprehensive that such an action would lead to further deterioration of an already distressing and fragile situation," the spokesman said.

The British government on Saturday termed the killing illegal and counter-productive.

"The British government has made it repeatedly clear that so-called 'targeted assassinations' of this kind are unlawful, unjustified and counter-productive," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in a statement.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels early Sunday that "Israel has a right to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks, but actions of this type are not only unlawful, they are not conducive to lowering tension."