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Release of church workers rewards Palestinian abductors

Payoffs pledged; tensions persist

NABLUS, West Bank -- Palestinian kidnappers won promises of payoffs for themselves and for comrades in Israeli prisons yesterday, in exchange for freeing three foreign church workers, including an American, Palestinians said.

The Palestinian Authority concluded the agreement in a new test of strength between militant groups and the security forces, which have been put under the authority of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

The flare-up indicated that the agreement last month by Qurei and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to share control of the security forces has not calmed the tensions that led to a leadership crisis between the two men.

Five gunmen seized the three church volunteers, an American, a Briton and an Irishman, on Friday night and took them to the Balata refugee camp.

At about the same time, about a dozen armed men broke into the governor's building in the northern West Bank town of Jenin and set it on fire.

Both groups demanded financial support from the Palestinian Authority, which gives unofficial payments to militants sought by Israel, according to security officials and the militants themselves.

The Palestinian Authority officially denies that it funds the militants, but some officials, including lawmakers, say support is given to militants who pledge not to attack targets inside Israel.

Officials said the kidnappers, who belonged to a splinter group of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, had been told that all their demands would be met and that the abduction was undermining the Palestinian cause.

The demands were for an unspecified amount of support for themselves and for imprisoned comrades, the officials said. They said Arafat had approved the promise.

The militants drove the hostages to a park yesterday and called the security forces to pick them up, the officials said.

The foreigners were first taken to the Nablus office of the Palestinian intelligence, then spent the rest of the night as guests of Ghassan Shaka'a, a close Arafat aide.

The freed hostages refused to speak to reporters, and their identities were not released.

The chief of Palestinian intelligence services in Nablus, Talal Duikat, said yesterday that his forces were searching for four suspects wanted in the kidnappings. The suspects did not belong to any specific group, Duikat said.

Palestinian security forces were "shocked" by the kidnappings and Arafat instructed them by phone to do everything to get the captives released quickly, Duikat said.

"The kidnappings have grave significance for the Palestinian people," Duikat said at a news conference. "I say to the entire world that we will protect every person who comes to visit us."

In Jenin, the local commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Zakaria Zubeidi, and his followers gutted the headquarters of the newly appointed governor, Qaddora Mousa. The building was empty, and no one was hurt.

Zubeidi made no attempt to hide his identity, and returned to the burned-out building in the morning brandishing an assault rifle for photographers.

"This day was my first day in my office, but unfortunately I have to take it when it is burned down," Mousa said yesterday.

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