- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

NABLUS, West Bank — Palestinian militants briefly abducted three foreign church volunteers, including an American, and won promises of payoffs for themselves and for comrades in Israeli prisons in exchange for their freedom, Palestinian officials said.

The promises by the Palestinian Authority came in a new test of strength between militant groups and the security forces, which recently were put under the authority of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

The flare-up indicated that the agreement last week between Mr. Qureia and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to share control of the security forces has failed to calm the underlying tensions that led to a paralyzing leadership crisis between the two men.

Five gunmen seized the three church volunteers — an American, a Briton and an Irishman — Friday night near their apartments and took them to the Balata refugee camp.

At around the same time, about a dozen armed men broke into the governor’s building in the northern West Bank town of Jenin and set it on fire.

Both groups demanded financial support from the Palestinian Authority, which gives unofficial payments to militants sought by Israel, according to security officials and the militants themselves.

The Palestinian Authority officially denies that it funds the militants, but some officials, including lawmakers, say support is given to militants who pledge not to attack targets inside Israel.

Officials said the kidnappers, who belonged to a splinter group of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, were told that all their demands would be met and that the abduction was undermining the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world. They said Mr. Arafat approved the promise.

The militants drove the hostages to a park early yesterday and called security forces to pick them up, the officials said.

The foreigners were first taken to the Nablus office of the Palestinian intelligence service, then spent the rest of the night as guests of Ghassan Shaka’a, a close Arafat aide.

The released hostages refused to speak to reporters, and their identities were not disclosed.

The foreigners were members of a Christian charity believed to be affiliated with the Union Church in the United States, and had been teaching English classes in Nablus, Reuters news agency reported, citing the head priest at a local Roman Catholic Church.

“We are safe and doing well,” the 22-year-old American who identified himself only as Phil told Reuters after he was freed.

The chief of Palestinian intelligence services in Nablus, Talal Duikat, said his forces were searching for four suspects wanted in the kidnappings. The suspects did not belong to any specific group, he said.

Palestinian security forces were “shocked” by the kidnappings and Mr. Arafat instructed them by phone to do everything to get the captives released quickly, Mr. Duikat said.

In Jenin, the local commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Zakaria Zubeidi, and his followers gutted the headquarters of the newly appointed governor, Qaddora Mousa. The building was empty, and no one was hurt.

Zubeidi made no attempt to hide his identity, and returned to the burned-out building in the morning brandishing an assault rifle for the benefit of photographers.

A similar spate of kidnappings and attacks on the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip earlier in July triggered the crisis between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Qureia.

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