Italian freed after brief kidnapping in Gaza


Masked Palestinian gunmen briefly kidnapped an Italian peace activist in the Gaza Strip and blew up a United Nations club today in separate incidents that underscored growing internal unrest.

They dealt an embarrassing blow to President Mahmoud Abbas just hours after he had vowed to end disorder that threatens to derail a January 25th election and as militant groups spurned his urging to renew a truce with Israel.

Three British hostages were set free in Gaza on Friday.

The gunmen seized the hostage, Alessandro Bernardini, during a visit by a delegation of 18 Italians ahead of the parliamentary election. He was the last member of the group to head towards the group's bus as they left an office in the southern city of Khan Younis.

A white car stopped beside him and the gunmen leapt out. "The gunmen fired three times into the air, forced the man into their car and sped away," said a bus driver who witnessed the scene.

The Palestinian Preventive Security force, an elite internal security unit, said it had surrounded the house where the hostage was being held and that the kidnappers then fled, leaving him behind. Looking shaken but unhurt, the Italian was led by masked security men into their headquarters in Gaza City.

An offshoot of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Mr Abbas's own ruling Fatah movement, said it carried out the kidnapping. The faction calling itself Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades-Sunni People said its demands were a full investigation into the death of late leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 and the removal of corrupt leaders from Fatah.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the kidnapping as harmful to the quest for a state. "Those irresponsible people are working against the interest of the Palestinians. They are trying to destroy the good Palestinian image in the world. We will bring them to justice. Enough is enough," he said.

The kidnapping came just three days after three British hostages were set free in Gaza.

Hours earlier, gunmen stormed a UN club in Gaza City and blew up the bar - the only place where alcohol is served openly in the conservative Muslim territory. Nobody was hurt, but the attack added to security fears. Chaos has grown in the Gaza Strip since the departure of Israeli troops in September after 38 years of occupation intensified a power struggle among militant factions, gangs and security forces.

The disorder has worsened in the run-up to a January 25th parliamentary election. Palestinian officials have said the troubles could force the postponement of the vote.