Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Israeli security forces set kidnapped taxi driver free

MOTIVE UNCLEAR Israel suspects the taxi driver was nabbed by militants, but no group claimed responsibility and the perpetrators made contradictory release demands

REUTERS , JERUSALEM

Israeli commandos yesterday freed unharmed an Israeli taxi driver held by Palestinians in a kidnapping that jolted relative calm ushered in by a Palestinian ceasefire crucial to a US-backed peace plan.

In London, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to disarm and dismantle militant groups to bolster the Middle East "road map" to peace.

The release of Eliahu Gurel, in his early 60s, came a day after a Palestinian fatally stabbed an Israeli strolling along the Tel Aviv seaside promenade in the first militant attack inside Israel since the truce was declared on June 29.

"In a combined operation, a large number of forces rescued Eliahu Gurel from his Palestinian kidnappers tonight," an army spokesman said.

The elite security forces were led to Gurel by two kidnappers arrested earlier in the day. A third was detained while trying to escape during the rescue, the army said.

Gurel went missing on Friday, his cab reportedly found with engine running in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

"I picked up passengers on the side of the road. I almost never do this but because of the little girl, I decided to take them," Gurel said of his last fare before the abduction.

"In French Hill in Jerusalem it was a different story. Someone took out a knife and held it to my neck ... I was held in a pit over the last two days," Gurel told Israeli army radio.

No group claimed responsibility for Gurel's kidnapping.

Israel said it suspected militants had abducted him and called on Palestinian security forces to ensure his safe return.

Israeli media reports said Gurel's kidnappers had made contradictory demands for his freedom, including money and the release of all or some of 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Other reports said the kidnappers were criminals who tried to sell Gurel to Palestinian militants who in the past kidnapped soldiers to exchange for Palestinian prisoners but have avoided doing so in an uprising for independence launched in 2000.

Militant leaders said they knew nothing about the abduction.

"The Israeli enemy likes to circulate lies and market them to the world. I do not rule out that this was all a set-up with the taxi driver involved," Abdallah al-Shami of Islamic Jihad told Reuters in Gaza.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the Tel Aviv attack, which was condemned by Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr.

Sharon, in an address to Jewish community leaders in Britain, said: "There should be [a] very active struggle -- and I would say, I would call it a war -- by the new Palestinian government against the terrorist organizations."

Palestinian officials had no immediate comment.

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