British family freed after Gaza kidnap ordeal

British aid worker Kate Burton and her parents were whisked out of the Gaza Strip by diplomats early today, hours after being released by Palestinian gunmen who abducted the family.

Ms Burton, 24, a worker with the Al-Mezan human rights group in Gaza, was seized at gunpoint on Wednesday with her parents, Hugh, 73 and Helen, 55, of Newbury, Berkshire, in the southern town of Rafah. The couple had come to Gaza on holiday to visit their daughter, officials said.

The kidnapping was the latest in a string of abductions of foreigners in recent months that have underlined the inability of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to impose order in the coastal strip since Israel’s withdrawal in September. The growing unrest threatens to weaken Abbas ahead of parliamentary elections next month.

After a frantic two-day search for the hostages, Palestinian security forces managed to win their release last night, said Palestinian mediator Kamal Sharafi.

“I can now say the British crisis situation is over and they are now on their way to … leave the Gaza Strip now,” Sharafi said. He declined to provide further details, citing the safety of the hostages, but said more information would be released later today.

A Palestinian security car dropped Hugh Burton off in front of an upmarket hotel, where British diplomats quickly put him into a vehicle and sped away towards Israel. Mr Burton did not speak to reporters and his wife and daughter were being taken to Israel separately.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Mujahideen Brigades Jerusalem Branch claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and threatened to abduct more foreigners if Israel did not end its “no-go” zone in the northern Gaza Strip.

The group issued a statement saying it released the hostages as a “goodwill gesture” after receiving assurances that Britain and the European Union would seek an end to the Israeli buffer zone.

“In case this doesn’t happen, the next time we will act differently and the international observers for the next Palestinian elections will be our target,” said the statement.

The Palestinians will hold parliamentary elections on January 25 and European and American monitors are expected to observe.

The group also issued a video showing a masked black-clad gunman next to Kate Burton.

Israel began imposing the off-limits area in northern Gaza this week to prevent rocket fire from the area. It has threatened to shoot anyone entering the buffer zone, along Gaza’s border with Israel.

British diplomats said there had been no contact with the kidnappers and denied a deal had been struck.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said he was pleased the hostages had been released.

“We urge all Palestinians to make this incident the last of the kidnappings of foreigners or anybody else,” he said. “This harms and destroys Palestinian interests.”

In previous abductions, the kidnappers have sought jobs in the Palestinian security forces, the release of imprisoned relatives or other personal favours. In all cases, the victims have been released safely.

It was unclear whether the Burtons’ kidnappers had made similar demands.

Abbas’ critics have accused him of giving in to kidnappers’ demands, thereby encouraging more abductions.

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