Release of journalists pursued

Pair kidnapped two weeks ago

August 27, 2006|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian Authority said yesterday that it hoped to soon secure the release of two Fox News journalists kidnapped in the Gaza Strip nearly two weeks ago. The comments by Khaled Abu Hilal, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, were made as a deadline set by the kidnappers passed yesterday with no further word from them.

The kidnappers, a previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades, demanded that the United States free all Muslims held in its prisons by noon yesterday in exchange for the two Fox News journalists, Steve Centanni, 60, an American reporter based in Washington, and Olaf Wiig, 36, a cameraman from New Zealand.

Hilal said the Palestinian Authority was working through a third party, which he declined to identify. But he said the authority had received word that both of the journalists, who were seized Aug. 14 in Gaza City, were in good condition.

Hilal stressed that the Palestinian Authority was only seeking the release of the two journalists and was not conducting negotiations.

"These are not negotiations," Hilal said. "We are exerting serious efforts to get them released."

The Holy Jihad Brigades released a statement Wednesday as well as a video of the two journalists, who appeared at ease as they spoke to the camera.

The nature of the group remains a mystery, and it is unclear whether it is a real organization or just a small number of kidnappers, possibly acting on behalf of another group or faction.

The U.S. government has rejected the group's demands.

Also yesterday, the Fatah movement, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, endorsed a proposal for a national unity government with Hamas, which dominates the Palestinian Cabinet and legislature.

"A national unity government will strengthen our hand to face the Israeli occupation," Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah leader, said after three days of talks by Fatah's Central Committee in Amman, Jordan, according to Reuters.

Abbas and Hamas leaders have agreed in principle on a government that would include Hamas and Fatah, the two leading Palestinian groups. However, the two sides must work out which party will control which ministries, a process that could involve protracted negotiations.

Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January. But faced with a Western aid embargo and political and military pressure from Israeli, the Hamas-led government has been unable to carry out even basic tasks, such as paying government employees. The hope is that a combined Fatah-Hamas government will ease the isolation of the Palestinian Authority.

The Associated Press reported that early today, Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at an armored car belonging to the Reuters news agency, wounding five people, including two cameramen, Palestinian witnesses and hospital officials said.

The Israeli army said it did not realize the car's passengers were journalists and only attacked because the vehicle was driving in a suspicious manner near Israeli troops in the middle of a combat zone, according to the AP.

In violence yesterday, Israeli troops shot and killed one Palestinian and wounded several more in a clash in the West Bank town of Nablus, Palestinian medical workers and the Israeli military said.

The military said the troops, on an arrest operation, fired on Palestinians who shot at them in addition to throwing stones and explosive devices.

Meanwhile, Israel said yesterday that it was pleased with a decision by European Union states to send nearly 7,000 peacekeepers to participate in a U.N. force in Lebanon.

"It's a positive move and an important step," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought a halt to the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, calls for up to 15,000 peacekeepers to join 15,000 Lebanese army troops, with most of the force deployed in southern Lebanon.

Points of disagreement remain. The U.N. resolution says Hezbollah should not be supplied with weapons, and Israel says it will not lift an air and sea embargo of Lebanon until there is a force in place to prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah from Syria.

"We've been saying from Day One that the cease-fire cannot be an excuse for Hezbollah to rearm," said Regev. "One of the prime problems has been that the Syrians allow weapons to go to Hezbollah. If this is not addressed, it would make the arms embargo a joke."

The Lebanese government has not sought U.N. assistance in patrolling its border with Syria, and Syria strongly opposes an international force along the border.

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