Egypt envoy kidnapped in Gaza Strip


JERUSALEM --Violence erupted in the Gaza Strip yesterday as Palestinian gunmen kidnapped an Egyptian diplomat and three armed Palestinians were killed during two attacks along Gaza's northern border with Israel.

Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that won the Palestinian elections last month, condemned the kidnapping, which was carried out by unidentified assailants.

However, Hamas' spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, called the attacks along the Israeli border "a natural response to the Israeli crimes," a reference to recent Israeli airstrikes that have killed Palestinian militants in Gaza.

President Vladimir V. Putin, rejecting calls for Russia to join the United States and European Union in declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, said yesterday in Madrid, Spain, that he was considering inviting Hamas leaders to Moscow for talks.

Israeli officials said Putin's offer conflicts with the ground rules for negotiations that Russia accepted as a member of the so-called Quartet on the Middle East, which also includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

The Quartet has made it clear that "Hamas cannot be a legitimate partner for political dialogue," said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, "unless it, one, recognizes Israel; two, abandons terrorism; and three, accepts the signed agreements" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Egyptian diplomat Hussam el-Musli was kidnapped yesterday near his country's diplomatic mission in Gaza City when two masked gunmen shot the tires and pulled him from his car, witnesses said. No group claimed responsibility.

"Hamas totally rejects and condemns the kidnapping of the Egyptian counselor," said Mushir al-Masri, another Hamas spokesmen, who was elected to parliament in last month's balloting.

Al-Masri said the kidnappers were attempting to harm the "civilized image" of the Palestinian people, and he urged the gunmen to "release the Egyptian diplomat and apologize."

The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, denounced the kidnapping, saying in a statement that it was "foreign to the traditions of the Palestinian people."

However, Palestinian gunmen in Gaza have repeatedly seized Western journalists and aid workers in recent years, though all have been released unharmed, usually within hours. The kidnappers often say their motive is to get a job in the Palestinian Authority security forces or to secure the release of jailed relatives and fellow militants.

The kidnappers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted by the Palestinian Authority. In some instances, the leadership has released prisoners as demanded by the kidnappers.

Still, yesterday's kidnapping was unusual because the target was from Egypt, a close ally of the Palestinians. Egypt has been host to the full range of Palestinian factions in Cairo on many occasions, and often acts as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Before dawn yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two armed Palestinians who attacked the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border, the military said.

Israel has been allowing 5,000 Palestinian workers to commute to Israel each day through the crossing, and nearly all pass through Erez during a hectic rush hour well before dawn.

About half of the workers had gone through Erez by 4 a.m., but suddenly and unexpectedly, the flood of laborers stopped, Israeli officials said.

Israeli security officers called their Palestinian counterparts, but said they did not receive a coherent explanation. At 4:30 a.m., the two Palestinians attacked an Israeli military position with grenades and gunfire and were shot dead, the military said.

The attack was jointly claimed by the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is part of Abbas' Fatah movement, and the Popular Resistance Committees, which includes militants from various groups. Israel closed the crossing after the attack.

A few hours later and a short distance away, Israeli troops shot and killed one of two Palestinians who were planting a bomb along the border fence, according to the Israeli military.

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