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Top Egyptian cleric Sheikh Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi says Palestinian suicide bombers are martyrs even if attacks on targets like Jewish settlements inadvertently kill women and children, Egypt's official news agency reported yesterday.

The Middle East News Agency quoted Tantawi, grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque and university and a major leader of Sunni Islam, as saying the bombers were defending their people's dignity but should not intentionally target "the weak."

"Whoever blows himself up among aggressors who wreck houses and kill men, women and innocents, and who violate the dignity of our brothers in Palestine ... is a martyr because he blows himself up in the midst of an enemy who is raping his land, violating his dignity and killing his people," Tantawi said.

"Suppose he (a bomber) is in a settlement, a Jewish settlement, and it is proved there are aggressors there, and he blows himself up in this settlement and kills men, women and children. He is also a martyr," Tantawi said. "What can he do?... He is not able to differentiate between them," he added.

But Tantawi said suicide bombers should not intentionally blow themselves up "among the weak" because this was incompatible with manhood and against Islamic law.

Tantawi's statement was apparently a response to the criticism against him for earlier indicating that he was against terrorist killings of women and children. Last April he issued a religious ruling, saying suicide bombings were "acts of self-defense and a kind of self sacrifice as long as the goal is to kill the enemy's fighters but not to kill women and children."

Tantawi took part two months ago in an interfaith conference in Alexandria where he joined other clergy in signing a statement which said that "Killing the innocent is a desecration of the Holy One constitutes a desecration of God."

His ruling and subsequent signing of the conference statement prompted allegations from other clerics that he was insufficiently zealous. His new statement appeared aimed at quelling some of that criticism, while still stipulating that there should not be wanton killing of women and children.