4 French aid workers, Palestinian officials seized in Gaza
The last of seven hostages snatched in a series of abductions by Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip was released Saturday morning, the day after he was kidnapped.
In three separate incidents in the Strip, four French aid workers and their Palestinian colleague, the Gaza Strip police chief and another senior Palestinian security chief were all snatched.
Colonel Khaled Abu Aloula, the director of military cordination for the southern sector of the Gaza Strip, was released late Saturday morning, a Palestinian official said.
His abduction came shortly after the Gaza police chief, Ghazi al-Jabali, was removed from his car at gunpoint and taken to the el-Bureij refugee camp in the central Strip.
The Palestinian National Security Council, headed by Arafat, declared a state of emergency in the Gaza Strip early Saturday, following the abductions.
The declaration called for increased protection around Palestinian government facilities and cancelled all leave for security officials.
The abductions also reflected a growing challenge to Arafat from militants trying to strengthen their position before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carries out the disengagement plan.
A Palestinian security official said the preventive security chief in Gaza, Rashid Abu Shbak, and the head of Palestinian general intelligence, Amin Hindi, had submitted their resignations to Arafat "because of the state of chaos and the lack of action by the Palestinian Authority to make reforms."
The announcement came in the early hours of Saturday, shortly after gunmen freed the four French aid workers and a Palestinian colleague they had been holding hostage in the southern town of Khan Yunis.
Abu Qusai, leader of the militants who kidnapped the French four, told Reuters by telephone the hostages were freed after intervention by Arafat, United Nations officials and the French consulate in Jerusalem.
"We have resolved the issue in an internal manner and on this basis we have released the two remaining hostages," he said.
Witnesses said the four were taken to the headquarters of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in the center of the town. The witnesses said the building was surrounded by about 25 armed men.
"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. [The militants] are still occupying the building," said Haidar Shuber, an employee.
Palestinian security officials said that the kidnapping was carried out by the Abu al-Rish Brigades, linked to Arafat's Fatah faction.
The French consulate in Jerusalem confirmed the hostages, aid workers from the French town of Evry, were released and were in good condition after being held for more than four hours. The militants had released the two female hostages hours earlier.
French aid worker Martine Buffard, who was released Saturday, described her kidnapping as "quite a pity" after her release on Saturday and said it would not stop her working there.
"I think it is quite a pity because this kind of action could put a black mark on what we do. But we still want to continue our work," she told reporters.
Buffard, along with another hostage working for the French charity calling itself Electricians Without Borders, said she was not afraid.
"I was very well treated. I was given water and I was comfortable in a room," she said. "They said they considered us as friends."
The Israel Defense Forces issued late Friday an open-ended order barring Israelis, including journalists, from entering the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian security officials said Aloula's kidnappers were Palestinian policemen who had recently been fired from their jobs. The officials said that earlier in the day the director had refused their request to help reinstate them.
Jabali was freed several hours after he was kidnapped in an ambush on his car.
"[Jabali] is now under the protection of [Preventive Security chief] Rashid Abu Shbak and has been released," the official said, some two hours after Jabali was abducted in an ambush on Gaza's coastal road.
The official said Arafat had agreed to the demands of the kidnappers, the Fatah-related Jenin Martyrs' Brigades, to dismiss Jabali and put him on trial for suspected corruption.
Jabali was fired Saturday by Arafat.
Palestinian sources told Israel Radio that during his interrogation, Jabali admitted to stealing $8 million and raping women. The kidnappers claimed that his remarks were recorded, and threatened to release the tapes if Arafat doesn't dismiss Jabali.
Two of Jabali's bodyguards were wounded and the rear window and tires of a jeep blown out during what a Palestinian security man at the scene said had been a volley of bullets from more than 10 gunmen on Gaza's coastal road.
"We gave three years to the Palestinian Authority to carry out reforms. We waited a long time. But they didn't do anything. We are doing this in our way," Abu Iyad, a spokesman for the brigades, said on Al-Jazeera satellite television. "Ghazi Jabali was kidnapped to hold him accountable for his mistakes against our people."
Israel Radio reported that members of Arafat's bureau conducted negotiations with Mahmoud Nashevat, who headed the group of abductors.
Jabali was travelling on Gaza City's coastal road when several cars cut off his convoy. Armed Palestinians put him in another vehicle and sped away, the security sources said.
As Gaza's police chief for most of the past 10 years since limited self-rule was established, Jabali has been the target of several attacks by militant groups vying for influence in Gaza.
In April, an explosion destroyed the front entrance of his Gaza home. Jabali had left the house shortly before the blast. A month before that attack militants fired at his office. He was unhurt.
A short time before Jabali's abduction, a jeep belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was seized in the same area, Israel Radio reported.