Search for Kidnapped Britons Continues

The whereabouts of three Britons kidnapped in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday afternoon were still unknown last night, as were the identities of the kidnappers and their demands.

Despite huge deployment by Palestinian security forces in Rafah, where Kate Burton, an aid worker with Palestinian human rights group Al-Mezan, and her visiting parents Hugh and Win were abducted, authorities acknowledged they were no closer to locating the three late last night.

In the 30 hours since the abduction, the kidnappers have offered no signs of life from the Burton family.

Representatives of Gaza political organizations rallied yesterday calling for their release and condemning the practice of abducting foreigners. A joint statement by Hamas and Fatah representatives at the rally condemned the kidnapping and called on Palestinian Authority security forces to maintain law and order.

The 25-year-old Burton has been in the Gaza Strip for more than two years. She was employed by the UN Development Program and for the past two months has served as Al-Mezan's coordinator of international relations.

About a week ago, Burton left on vacation and met up with her parents in Bethlehem. They entered the Gaza Strip Wednesday at the Erez checkpoint. Because she was on vacation, Mezan staff didn't learn she was back in Gaza until after the kidnapping.

A taxi driver who was driving the three foreigners south of Rafah said that at about 3:45 P.M., three armed men pulled him over and forced Burton and her parents out of the taxi at gunpoint and into a waiting car.

Al-Mezan said Burton speaks Arabic and is very involved in Gaza life.

From the moment the kidnapping was reported, Gaza mobilized for the search with Al-Mezan, Palestinian security forces, reporters, friends of Al-Mezan - all called every possible armed group or informant, to find out the whereabouts of the three, to no avail.

After rampant rumors attributed the snatch to the armed group Black Panther, the group denied any involvement.

This is the second kidnapping of foreigners in a week in the Gaza Strip, after the principal and vice principal of the American school were abducted last week by a group associated with the Popular Front, demanding the release of its leaders and militants from the Palestinian prison in Jericho. The PFLP condemned the move and denied the hostage takers were part of its military arm.

At least 14 foreign citizens were abducted in Gaza this year, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Most of the kidnappers were identified with one of the armed groups associated with the Fatah. Some of them demanded higher salaries or more jobs in one of the security organizations, or the release of relatives jailed for criminal offenses.

None of the kidnappers appear to have faced trial or punishment and some of the demands have been met. Palestinian human rights groups blame the PA's inaction and kid-glove handling of the kidnappers for encouraging the practice.