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RABIN ASSASSINATED // Israeli law student is arrested

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated Saturday night only minutes after the former general spoke for peace at a giant rally.

Rabin, 73, was about to get into his car when a gunman fired three bullets from close range, hitting him in the back and stomach. He was rushed to a Tel Aviv hospital, where he arrived unconscious. He had no pulse, no blood pressure.

He died on the operating table 90 minutes later. It was the Jewish Sabbath.

Police arrested a Jewish college student named Yigal Amir, 27. Israel Radio said he had confessed to the shooting and told investigators that he had no regrets for what he had done.

Rabin had led the nation of Israel in a historic peace plan with Palestinians. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize for what he had done, but the deal had outraged Jewish right-wingers.

More than 100,000 people attended Saturday's rally, the largest pro-peace rally in years. Rabin sang the Shir HaShalom _ The Peace Song, then said: "This Song of Peace, which echoes in the ears of all of us still, will not cease."

He folded the piece of paper on which the song was written and walked with a team of bodyguards for his car.

A single gunman cut through police circles and fired at him. Rabin collapsed with blood on his shirt, and police pulled him into the car to rush him to the hospital.

The suspected gunman, Amir, was quickly pinned to a wall by dozens of police officers. Israeli radio and TV reports said Amir was a law student from Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, who had been involved in right-wing causes, including setting up illegal settlements in the West Bank.

At the hospital, the mournful watch began. At 11:17 p.m., a member of Rabin's staff announced the prime minister's death.

People screamed in the large crowd of onlookers. Some banged their heads against cars. Others put their hands over their ears, not wanting to hear the news.

Israel immediately named Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, as acting prime minister.

Only minutes before Rabin was shot down, he and Peres stood before the peace rally and hugged. They had been longtime rivals _ Peres, the dreamy dove; Rabin, realistic, hard-edged hawk.

"You see," Rabin told reporters. "Things change not only in the world but also in the Middle East _ also for us."

"We are hugging for peace."

Like Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981, Rabin died in the paradox of peace efforts spawning violence. His policies, especially his autonomy agreements with the Palestinians, have deeply divided Israel. At right-wing demonstrations, Rabin was routinely denounced as a"murderer" and "traitor." At a recent rally, protesters even held up posters of Rabin in a Nazi uniform.

Right-wing extremists who gathered briefly at the hospital condemned Rabin, even while he was fighting for his life. "Rabin is a murderer," they shouted.

But hundreds of others waiting outside the hospital burst into tears when Rabin's top aide, Eitan Haber, announced that Rabin had died.

At the site of the shooting, the Kings Square in Tel Aviv, young Israelis sat on the ground, weeping. Some lit candles, while others sang The Peace Song, the same one Rabin had earlier sung. At a Jerusalem shopping mall, people walked out in the middle of a movie when word of the assassination reached them.

A state funeral was scheduled for Monday. According to Jewish tradition, burial takes place within 24 hours. However, the ceremony was delayed by a day to give world leaders a chance to attend. President Clinton will be among them.

Many will be watching to see how many Arab leaders take part.

Clinton was in the White House when he heard the news from National Security Adviser Anthony Lake about 4 p.m. EST. Within the hour, the president telephoned Mrs. Rabin and Peres.

A shaken Clinton then addressed the nation. In the Rose Garden, near where Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on Sept. 13, 1993, the president who had brought them together spoke on a moonlit evening tinged by tragedy of his grief at the loss of "my partner, my friend."

"Peace must be and peace will be Prime Minister Rabin's lasting legacy."

He ordered American flags to be flown at half-staff.

Clinton would leave today to attend the funeral service.

Arafat said he was shocked "by this awful, terrible crime." He hoped that "all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, will have the ability to overcome this tragedy against the peace process," he said.

Foreign Minister Peres, now acting prime minister, was with Rabin at the rally, only yards away when the shots were fired.

When a prime minister dies in office, the government is deemed to have resigned and becomes a transitional government. The president, Ezer Weizman, must begin contacts on forming a new government. The next scheduled elections are a year away.

Peres convened the shaken Cabinet ministers for a midnight mourning session. Parliament Speaker Shevah Weiss said that the answer to "this satanic, terrible step is peace immediately . . . with the Palestinians, with all the powers around us."

Peres, the driving force behind the peace agreements with the Palestinians, has been more dovish than Rabin, his long-time political rival. However, in the past three years, the two had put their rivalries aside and worked as a team, and they shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Arafat.

It was not clear whether Peres would use the expected backlash against right-wing extremists to carry out some policies deemed too unpopular. For instance, Peres long wanted to dismantle the 450-strong Jewish community in the tense West Bank town of Hebron, but hesitated for fear of protests.

Haim Avraham, a Labor Party activist, sat against Ichilov Hospital's concrete wall in despair at the news of Rabin's death. "There was a light on his face. He was so glad, so peaceful. He was like a Messiah, like a Messiah."

Others also said they had never seen Rabin so joyous.

"Rabin sang a peace song, can you imagine? Rabin singing? He was so happy," said Liat Ron, 24 of Kibbutz Ein Dor in the Galilee. "Now I think the left-wing will fight back. I think the country will go to a civil war."

Rabin's last interview, with Israel Radio, at the peace rally was about the dangers of peace. He was talking about Islamic militants attempting to wreck the peace deal with Israel _ but he could have been talking about ring-wing Israelis trying to break up peace.

"I've always believed most of the nation opposed violence, violence which recently assumed a form which damages the basic values of democracy in Israel," Rabin said. "People have doubts about their personal security. But they have no doubt that they should take the road to peace."

"For 27 years, I was a military man," Rabin told the peace rally minutes before he was killed. "I fought all the time. There was no chance for peace. I believe that now there is a chance for peace and we must take advantage of it."