Israel has for the first time admitted assassinating the PLO's former number two, Abu Jihad, in a raid on the movement's Tunis headquarters in 1988, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

The report, published in Israel's top-selling Yediot Aharonot, said the operation was planned by the Mossad spy agency and carried out by the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit.

Abu Jihad, whose real name was Khalil al-Wazir, was shot dead in the early hours of April 16, 1988 in a commando raid on the PLO headquarters by what was presumed to be Israeli agents.

"Israel killed the number two man in the PLO, Abu Jihad, in Tunis in 1988, it can now be reported. The intelligence part of the assassination was overseen by the Mossad, and the operational side was carried out by Sayeret Matkal," the paper said.

Publication of details about the operation was made possible after six months of negotiations between Yediot Aharonot and Israel's military censors, the paper said.

Mossad did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the article.

The operation was commanded by Nahum Lev who, in an interview before his death in 2000, spoke frankly about his role in the operation although it was never published.

"I had read every page of the file on him," he said. "Abu Jihad was connected to horrific acts against civilians. He was marked for death. I shot him with no hesitation."

A long-time friend and deputy to the veteran leader Yasser Arafat who headed the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Abu Jihad had played a leading role in directing the 1987-1994 intifada uprising against the Israeli occupation.

"For us, it was the state of Israel which assassinated Abu Jihad," said Mahmud al-Alul, a former assistant to the PLO deputy, and now a senior official in the Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

"Abu Jihad was not assassinated by a soldier but by a decision of the Israeli government and its military leadership," he told AFP, saying it was clear to the world which Israeli officials were responsible.

"Everybody knows who the prime minister was and the defence minister, and the heads of the security establishment. For us, they are responsible for killing him," Alul said.

At the time, Yitzhak Shamir was premier, and the defence minister was Yitzhak Rabin, who later served as prime minister until he was killed by a rightwing extremist in 1995.

Ehud Barak, the current defence minister, was the deputy chief of staff at the time, and Moshe Yaalon, now strategic affairs minister, was the unit commander of Sayeret Matkal.

Details outlined in the report show that 26 Sayeret Matkal commandos arrived on the beach in Tunis on the evening of April 15 and separated into two groups who were transported by car to a spot less than 500 metres (yards) from Abu Jihad's house.

Lev and another commando disguised as a woman approached the house as if they were a couple out for an evening stroll.

On finding the first bodyguard dozing outside in a car, Lev shot him in the head with a gun equipped with a silencer that had been hidden in a large box of chocolates.

"When the other combatants received the signal that the outside guard had been neutralised, the members of the second group approached with equipment to break open the villa's door. They rushed inside, wearing masks," it said.

One of the agents ran up the stairs with Lev behind him.

"He shot Abu Jihad first," Lev said. "It looked like he was holding a gun. Then I shot him, a long burst, careful not to hurt his wife who showed up. He died. Other combatants confirmed the kill."

A second bodyguard and a gardener who was sleeping in the basement were also killed.

"It was too bad about the gardener," Lev said. "But in operations like this, you have to ensure that all potential resistance is neutralised."