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Friday, July 16, 2004

al Reuters: "Gunmen" seize three French citizens in Gaza

By Shahdi al-Kashif

GAZA (Reuters) - Masked Palestinian gunmen seized three French civilians in the Gaza Strip Friday to press President Yasser Arafat to reinstate them in jobs, Palestinian witnesses and security officials said.

The two women and a man had been sitting in a restaurant in the town of Khan Younis when the gunmen burst in and took them to the local Red Crescent headquarters, on a day in which a Palestinian police chief and an official were also abducted.

The gunmen, wielding automatic weapons, ordered workers to leave the headquarters and then fired shots from a window to ward off police who surrounded the building, witnesses said.
Palestinian security officials said the abduction was carried out by militants from the Abu al-Rish Brigades, which is linked to Arafat's mainstream Fatah group.

The officials, who identified those being held as French citizens, said the kidnappers had demanded to be reinstated in jobs Arafat had fired them from.

In Paris the French Foreign Ministry said it had no immediate information on the incident.

"A large number of masked men raided our building and called for us to leave. There were three foreigners with them, two women and one old man," said Haidar Shuber, who worked in the building.  [other sources say five kidnapped]

POLICE CHIEF SEIZED
Earlier, gunmen kidnapped Gaza Strip police chief Ghazi al-Jabali for three hours in a challenge to Arafat, but conflicting accounts emerged over the circumstances of his release.
The shadowy Jenin Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for kidnapping Jabali in a road ambush, saying it had acted after years of inaction from Arafat's Palestinian Authority over what it called the police chief's mistakes.

A senior Palestinian official, who declined to be named, said Jabali was freed after Arafat agreed to put the police chief on trial for suspected corruption.

But after his release, Jabali was all smiles when he appeared before reporters in a fresh uniform at police headquarters in Gaza City. He declined comment, as did many other officials.

"Everything is alright and the problem is solved," said Ahmed Hilis, Fatah's head in Gaza, without elaborating. 
 
(Additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston in Gaza and Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)
 

UPDATE: TWO RELEASED

GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian militants released two French hostages after kidnapping four French civilians in Gaza in a bid to demand Palestinian President Yasser Arafat make reforms to his government, Palestinian witnesses said.

Gunmen stormed into a restaurant in the Gaza town of Khan Younis late Friday, abducted the four French civilians and held them hostage in a nearby Red Crescent building while dozens Palestinian security officers surrounded it for two hours.

The two female abductees were seen being helped by Palestinian security officers into an ambulance, which raced away from the scene. The remaining two male captives are still being held hostage in the building.