Palestinians step up search for kidnapped Britons

Palestinian security forces set up roadblocks throughout the southern Gaza Strip today as they stepped up a search for three British citizens abducted by Palestinian gunmen, the latest in a wave of kidnappings of foreigners in the chaotic area.

Kate Burton, 25, a British aid worker, was kidnapped along with her parents yesterday in the southern town of Rafah, said Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa.

Palestinian officials and British diplomats conceded late today that they were no closer to freeing the hostages.

Palestinian security officials said that they were in contact with armed groups, but had not yet determined the family’s whereabouts. They set up roadblocks in Rafah and the nearby town of Khan Younis to inspect all traffic moving through the area.

A team of British diplomats rushed to Gaza and was in close contact with the Palestinians, a diplomat said. “We’re quite happy with the way things are going, but the three nationals are not close to being released,” said the diplomat.

The kidnapping was the latest in a string of abductions of foreigners in recent months. The kidnappings have undermined Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ attempts to establish order in Gaza following Israel’s withdrawal from the area in September.

“This is part of a new fad of kidnapping for extortion and seeking jobs,” Abu Khoussa said.

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

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

There was no claim of responsibility for the latest kidnapping.

The Al Mezan human rights group in Gaza confirmed that Burton had worked for the group for four months, handling human rights and fund-raising responsibilities. Mezan officials said she was on holiday with her parents at the time of the abduction.

“She’s a good woman,” said Jamil Sarhan, Mezan’s executive director.

“This defames the Palestinian case and the Palestinian national struggle,” Sarhan said.

“We have contacted all Palestinian official armed organisations, who all condemned this and are helping us search for her from door to door.”

Dozens of Palestinians calling for Burton’s release held a demonstration in Gaza City today.

Moheib Shaath, who worked in a Palestinian youth group with Burton, said she speaks Arabic and has lived in the Palestinian territories for three years.

“She is a very close friend and supporter of the Palestinian youth,” he said.

A spokesman for the Hamas militant group in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, denounced the kidnappings.

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