|By Amos Harel and Arnon Regular, Haaretz Correspondents, Haaretz Service and Agencies
The British Chancellor of the Exchequer on Wednesday ordered the Bank of England to freeze any assets of five senior Hamas members, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the group's new leader in the Gaza Strip.
Treasury chief Gordon Brown said the government had reasonable grounds to suspect that Rantisi and four others - Moussa Abu Marzouk, Imad Khalil Al-Alami, Usama Hamdan and Khaled Mashaal - may be involved in terrorism.
"This action has been taken because the Treasury have reasonable grounds for suspecting that four of the individuals are, or may be, persons who facilitate or participate in the commission of acts of terrorism and one, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, is or may be a person who commits, facilitates or participates in such acts," the Treasury said in a statement.
The Bank of England will enforce the freeze by directing financial institutions that may hold such funds to put a stop on the accounts, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Hamas political bureau chief Mashaal was quoted Wednesday as saying that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had become a target for assassination.
The German DPA news agency quoted him as telling a Hamas Web site "Sharon has become a target for Palestinian resistance men and the al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas' armed wing] in retaliation for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin."
Mashaal on Wednesday reportedly told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper "...Since the enemy has targeted our leadership... and a big symbol like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, it is the right of the resistance to respond against the big Zionist heads."
Asked if that included Sharon, he said: "Yes, including Sharon, but this is up to the military leadership in the field and its capabilities. I hope that they are successful."
Hamas has repeatedly threatened to target high-ranking Israeli officials such as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz since the assassination early Monday morning of its spiritual leader and founder.
On Tuesday, Hamas distributed playing cards with the names of Israeli officials who would be targeted, similar to the card decks of officials in the regime of captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein issued by the United States.
Contrary to previous reports, Mashaal said Hamas had no intention of carrying out retaliatory attacks against international targets, but would focus on attacks against Israel.
Rantisi dismisses Israeli threats
Rantisi said Wednesday he is not afraid of Israeli threats to kill him. Rantisi, a highly visible hard-liner, was chosen Tuesday as the new Hamas leader in its Gaza Strip stronghold. Maashal remains, at least for now, Hamas' overall leader.
Speaking to reporters in Gaza City on Wednesday, Rantisi said he was not intimidated by Yassin's assassination.
"It's death by killing or cancer," Rantisi told reporters. "If it's cardiac arrest or an Apache [helicopter], I prefer to be killed by an Apache."
Defense chiefs decided during a five-hour meeting Monday to step up targeted attacks. Officials decided to go after the entire leadership without waiting for another attack by Hamas, according to security sources.
Immediately after claiming the mantle at the packed Yarmouk Stadium in Gaza, where thousands - including Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia - gathered to pay condolences to the Hamas leadership, the 57-year-old Rantisi went underground, fearing an Israeli attempt on his life.
Rantisi, a pediatrician who was Hamas' chief spokesman, on Tuesday reiterated the Hamas pledge to avenge Yassin's assassination. Rantisi said Sharon and other Israeli leaders "will never feel security or safety." He told the cheering crowd, "We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation."
"My dear people, you who were displaced by the Jews from your cities and villages, you will return to your villages and cities through fighting, because we don't have any other strategic option ... Resistance is continuing," he said.