Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Diplomatic convoy held at gunpoint by soldiers

THE GUARDIAN , JERUSALEM

Israeli forces opened fire above a British embassy convoy and held it at gunpoint in Gaza while it was carrying diplomats and the family of an English peace activist left in a coma by an Israeli bullet.

The army forced two armored Range Rovers with diplomatic plates to halt as they drove through the Abu Houli crossing on Sunday, even though British officials had notified Israeli forces of their arrival 10 minutes earlier.

The group was en route to the Rafah refugee camp where Tom Hurndall, 21, was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper last month as he tried to protect a five-year-old girl.

During the standoff one of the diplomats, Andrew Whitaker, emerged from one car with his hands above his head to try to talk to soldiers hidden behind concrete pillboxes, while the British defense attache to Tel Aviv, Colonel Tom Fitzallen Howard, phoned the army for an explanation.

"There's a complete lack of control. They fire without warning," said Tom Hurndall's father, Anthony, who was in one car with his wife and 12-year-old son.

"As we passed the first pillbox a shot was fired over the cars. We weren't clear why, or what was happening. Nobody came out, we couldn't tell if we were supposed to get out or go on," he said.

After several minutes a hand emerged from one of the pillboxes and waved on the vehicles without explanation.

Hurndall said Fitzallen Howard immediately called the army contact he had spoken to minutes earlier.

"His immediate reaction was to say he didn't get the message down in time. The colonel said, `Regardless of that, why did you fire at us? You shot at official embassy cars for no reason.' The Israeli's excuse was that we didn't stop. He said we were supposed to go through one by one but that is simply not true," Hurndall said.

The incident reflects increased suspicion towards foreigners after an attack on a Tel Aviv bar last week by two British suicide bombers recently visited Gaza.

The British embassy has laid a formal complaint about the convoy incident.

The Hurndall family had gone to Gaza to gather information about Tom's shooting. Doctors say he is severely brain damaged and unlikely to emerge from a coma.

His father says the army has not been cooperative.

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