Egypt diplomat seized in Gaza

Russia invites Hamas leaders to Moscow for talks
GAZA CITY (AP) — Masked gunmen kidnapped an Egyptian diplomat in a brazen daylight attack Thursday that underscored the spiralling lawlessness in the Gaza Strip, and showed that no one — not even an official from one of the Palestinians’ most important allies — is immune from the violence.

The Egyptian was the first diplomat nabbed amid a recent spate of kidnappings, and the abduction was the most serious attack on diplomats in the Palestinian areas since three American security guards were killed when a US diplomatic convoy was hit by a bomb in October 2003.

The abduction came amid a flare-up in violence between Gaza fighters and Israel, with launching rockets into Israel and Israeli retaliating with artillery fire and air strikes. Israeli troops shot and killed three fighters on Thursday during attacks, bringing to 14 the number of Gaza fighters killed in violence with Israel over the past week.

The kidnapping of Hussam Almousaly, the Egyptian diplomat, occurred about 11:00am when two masked gunmen shot out the tyres of his diplomatic vehicle just 200 metres from the heavily guarded Egyptian diplomatic mission in Gaza City. The gunmen sped off with Almousaly, witnesses said.

The identity of the gunmen was not known even hours after the attack, and Palestinian security officials said they had not been contacted with demands.

Palestinian police set up roadblocks throughout Gaza to try to find the kidnappers, and officers questioned possible witnesses.

“We totally condemn such acts,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said, identifying Almousaly as an Egyptian military attaché.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement that it was working to “expedite the release of the kidnapped diplomat.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Islamic Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections last month, condemned the abduction, saying it “harmed the Palestinians’ strong relations with Egypt.” Hamas leaders are in Cairo for talks about setting up a new Palestinian government.

Gaza gunmen have kidnapped about 20 foreigners in recent months, using the hostages to try to get jobs from the Palestinian Authority or to secure release of jailed comrades. The Palestinian Authority routinely accedes to their demands, and all of the previous hostages have been released unharmed.

In other violence, two fighters with a bomb belt threw handgrenades and opened fire on Israeli forces at the Erez checkpoint, where thousands of Palestinian labourers cross from Gaza into Israel everyday. Israeli troops shot them dead and their bomb belt exploded, the army said. No Israeli soldiers were wounded, and the army closed Erez.

The Popular Resistance Committees and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed joint responsibility for the attack. Al Aqsa is a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh movement, which lost the parliament elections.

Hours later, just two kilometres from Erez, Israeli troops opened fire on two people planting an explosive device near the security fence between Gaza and Israel, killing one and wounding another, the army and Palestinian security forces said.

After it pulled out of Gaza last summer following 38 years of occupation, Israel said it would no longer tolerate any attacks from the territory.

“The area is overrun with terror,” Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, chief of Israel’s southern command, told Israel’s Channel 2 TV. “They still haven’t reconciled with the new situation. The Palestinians do not have a reason to fire rockets into Israel because the last soldiers and the last of the settlers left the Gaza Strip over five months ago, but the terror attempts continue without any break.” Also Thursday, nearly all the Palestinian Authority’s 140,000 employees received their overdue January salaries despite a severe budget crisis, said the deputy finance minister, Jihad Al Wazir.

The Palestinian Authority borrowed some payroll money from banks after Arab countries did not transfer millions they had promised, he said.

Before the payments were made, about 25 armed Al Aqsa men working in the security forces broke into the finance ministry building in Gaza City to demand their salaries. They left after being assured they would be paid.

About a dozen other Al Aqsa members on the payroll took over the interior ministry building in the West Bank city of Hebron to demand their money.

The Palestinian Authority relies on bank loans, foreign aid and millions of dollars in monthly tax transfers from Israel to meet its $116 million monthly payroll.

The perpetual crisis is likely to worsen in the wake of the Hamas’ election victory. Foreign donor countries threatened to cut off aid, and Israel said it would halt the tax transfers once Hamas forms a government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking Thursday during a trip to Spain, extended an invitation to Hamas’ leaders to come to Moscow for talks “to search for solutions.” Alexander Kalugin, Russia’s special envoy for the Middle East, said Russia would ask Hamas to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said from Gaza that members would be “delighted” to visit Russia if officially invited.

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