PA Security Official: Al Aqsa Brigade Has Dismantled

Militia gunmen said to have given themselves up; Olmert's spokesman: Brigade still poses threat.

A dozen Palestinian gunmen surrendered to Palestinian forces on Tuesday, and the top Palestinian security official said this means a violent West Bank militia, is now defunct. However, Israeli officials are skeptical of such claims, and say gunmen still pose a threat to Israel.

The gunmen who gave themselves up Tuesday are from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.

Al Aqsa was formed at the start of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, and at its height had hundreds of members who carried out scores of shooting attacks against Israelis. Most recently, Al Aqsa was involved in the killing of two off-duty Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the West Bank last month.

In recent months, Abbas' security forces have tried to assert control in the West Bank, particularly in Nablus, the West Bank's second largest city and a former militia stronghold.

As part of the campaign, they have urged Al Aqsa gunmen to surrender their weapons, in exchange for a promise of amnesty from Israel and the prospect of jobs in the security services. Hundreds have so far taken up the offer, but holdouts have remained.

In Nablus, a small Al Aqsa splinter group, which called itself The Knights of the Night, was the last to surrender, Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh said Tuesday.

This is the last military group of Al Aqsa to hand over its weapons, Yehiyeh told The Associated Press. The Al Aqsa Brigades have been dismantled.

The splinter group was based in Nablus' old city, or casbah, a hive-like cobblestone neighborhood, which Israeli forces encircled and raided for four days last week. Militants have traditionally hidden in the old city, because it is difficult to search.

Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that during that sweep the troops discovered arms and explosives, while a week earlier, two Israelis were killed elsewhere in the West Bank by gunmen with links to the Palestinian security services, showing that the Abbas government still had much to do to put its house in order.

"I know the Palestinian have commenced important work but much more remains to be done," Regev said, "They have serious challenges in dealing with rogue elements inside their own security forces, in creating an efficient and unified security force and in disarming all the different private armies as the Road Map calls upon them to do."

Mahdi Abu Ghazaleh, the Knights of the Night leader, said his men would remain in a Palestinian Authority prison for the next three months. "I never imagined the Aqsa Brigades would reach this stage," Abu Ghazaleh said. "I have decided to hand over matters to the political leadership to decide (our fate).

A former Al Aqsa leader, Kamel Ghanam, acknowledged that individual members of the militia might still resort to violence. "Al Aqsa, as a movement, has ended its activities, he said. But I expect that if the Israelis continue their (military) operations, someone will come out here or there, as an individual or as a group, to retaliate

The Defense Ministry refused to comment on the latest Palestinian assertion but a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that in any case the Palestinians still have a long way to go toward stamping out armed militant groups.

The IDF continues to carry out arrest raids in the West Bank, prompting Palestinian complaints that Israel is undermining moderate PA president Abbas.

The dispute is expected to be raised during U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Israel and the West Bank starting Wednesday. The Palestinians are required to dismantle violent groups as part of their obligations under the road map peace plan, which also demands that Israel freeze settlement expansion. Palestinian progress on security issues would increase pressure on Israel to declare a settlement freeze.

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