- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 1, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian security officers stormed a building where an Italian man was being held yesterday, freeing the hostage in a shootout with his kidnappers.

It was a rare show of force amid a wave of kidnappings, shootouts and other mayhem in the Gaza Strip that has embarrassed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, threatening to undermine his Fatah party in Jan. 25 legislative elections and boost the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Alessandro Bernardini was abducted early yesterday in the town of Khan Younis. Mr. Bernardini, an aide in the European Parliament, was traveling on a minibus with a delegation that included two European Union lawmakers. Armed men stopped the vehicle, forced him out and sped away with him.

After a four-hour search, Palestinian security agents burst into a Khan Younis building and freed Mr. Bernardini.

“We stormed the place after we surrounded it. We broke in and succeeded to release the hostage safely,” said Col. Atef Ilyan of the Palestinian preventive security service. The kidnappers escaped after exchanging fire with the raiders, he said.

There were no reports of injuries, and Mr. Bernardini was escorted to Gaza City under heavy guard.

Mr. Bernardini told reporters that he was treated well in captivity, receiving tea and cigarettes, and said he remained committed to the Palestinian cause.

“I’m not going to change my ideas about the Palestinians,” he said.

There was no claim of responsibility, but a security official in Khan Younis said the abduction was carried out by a small, radical group affiliated with Fatah.

Security officials also blamed Fatah-linked radicals for the kidnapping last week of a British aid worker and her parents. The Britons were freed after two days in captivity.

Gaza has experienced a rash of kidnappings of foreigners, armed takeovers of government buildings and other violencesince Israel withdrew from the coastal strip in September.

Early yesterday, gunmen stormed a Gaza club open only to foreigners after closing time, throwing two bombs and injuring a Palestinian guard, security officials said.

Palestinian security agencies rarely have used force in such instances, preferring to end standoffs through negotiations. Critics say Mr. Abbas’ hands-off approach has encouraged more abductions.

Virtually all the violence has been carried out by elements within Fatah, and the chaos appears to stem from disarray within the long-ruling party, which faces a strong election challenge from Hamas.

With Mr. Abbas rejecting calls to delay the ballot, some factions within Fatah appear to be trying to sabotage the election in fear that Hamas will do well.

In recent weeks, Fatah-linked gunmen in two West Bank cities have threatened to raid ballot boxes on election day. And after releasing the British hostages Friday night, the kidnappers threatened to abduct European election observers.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide