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A Dutch school principal and his Australian deputy who were kidnapped by gunmen in Gaza City on Wednesday morning were released unharmed several hours later.
The two, who work at the International American School in Gaza City, were kidnapped around 7:00 am as they were on their way to work.
Eyewitnesses said four gunmen intercepted their Honda Civic car near the Merry Land Hotel on al-Nasser Street in the northern part of Gaza City.
The kidnappers forced the two, Hendrik Taategen of the Netherlands and Brian Ambrosio of Australia, into a waiting car and drove to an undisclosed location. The incident took place about two kilometers from the school premises.
A group affiliated with the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP} claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. It said the two were kidnapped to demand the release of PFLP secretary-general Ahmed Sa'adat, who is being held in a Palestinian prison in Jericho for his role in the assassination of former Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
"This kidnapping is a message to the Palestinian Authority, the US and Israel," said a statement issued by the Wadi Hadad Brigades, the armed wing of the PFLP. "We declare that we have run out of patience because of the continued incarceration of Sa'adat and his companions [who are also being held in the Jericho prison for their role in the Ze'evi assassination]. From now on we won't allow this farce to continue."
The hostages were released at the Gaza City office of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. It was not clear under what conditions, if any, the two were released. It was also unclear if anyone had been arrested in connection with the kidnapping.
"I think that today is a bad memory for us," Ambrosio said after his release. "We need somehow to get away from this bad memory, so we can contribute again to build the future of Gaza at this difficult time."
A spokesman for the gunmen said in a videotaped message that the two were released following the intervention of legislator Kamal Sharfi of Gaza City, who promised to raise the case of the imprisoned PFLP members with the PA leadership. Sharfi said the group was also demanding that the PA recruit its members to its security forces.
In a phone interview from prison, Sa'adat denied any connection to the kidnapping, saying he had no prior knowledge of the plan to abduct the two foreigners. He also denied that the Wadi Haddad group was linked to the PFLP. About 100 students are enrolled in the elite private school, which receives part of its funding from the US Government.
The PA strongly condemned the kidnapping of the two educators and vowed to punish the culprits. A statement issued by the PA Interior Ministry described the kidnappers as "outcasts," saying it will deal harshly with such crimes.
Rawya al-Shawa, another legislator from the Gaza Strip, said such kidnappings would not have occurred had the PA refused to negotiate with the perpetrators. She pointed out that Wednesday's incident was the latest in a series of abductions targeting foreigners in the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said the abduction was due to the absence of effective measures by the PA against kidnappings and other forms of security chaos.
"This latest incident comes as part of a pattern of kidnappings that has escalated in 2005," the center said. "The PA has failed to take effective measures to fight such crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Before this latest crime, at least 12 internationals had been kidnapped in seven separate incidents. A number of Palestinian citizens had been also kidnapped. Such crimes reflect the state of security chaos and attacks on the rule of law in PA-controlled areas."