Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Talks under way to free Gaza reporters

PALESTINIAN AL-QAEDA? In a new turn in Israeli-Palestinian politics, the demands of the group responsible for kidnapping two Western journalists have targeted the US

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JERUSALEM

The Hamas-run Palestinian Au-thority said on Friday that some progress was being made to secure the release of two kidnapped Western journalists.

"Contacts are under way with Palestinian groups who are trying to secure the release of the two journalists," said Siad Siam, the Palestinian minister of the interior. "Things are at an early stage, but they are encouraging."

It was not clear that anyone was in communication with the mysterious new group, the Holy Jihad Brigades. In a statement released on Wednesday with a video of the two captives, the group demanded that the US release all its Muslim prisoners by midday yesterday, but it made no specific threats.

It is the first time that kidnappers in Gaza have made demands that were outside the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raising fears of an al-Qaeda-like group emerging in the chaos of Gaza.

Steve Centanni, 60, an American correspondent for Fox News, and Olaf Wiig, 36, a New Zealand freelance cameraman, were kidnapped in Gaza City on Aug. 14 when their car was blocked by gunmen.

The kidnapping has been a severe embarrassment to the Hamas government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and to President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah. Both have called for the speedy release of the journalists and say that they have no knowledge of the kidnappers.

On June 25, Palestinian militants, including the military wing of Hamas, captured an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid. Abbas has called for the corporal's release; Haniya has not.

But the two are in talks about a unity government that would go part way to meeting international demands that Hamas recognize the right of Israel to exist, forswear violence and respect previous Israeli-Palestinian treaties.

Some in Gaza think that the kidnapping of the journalists was an effort by angry Palestinian militants to weaken both Haniya and Abbas and to short-circuit any accommodation between Fatah and Hamas.

In Israel, politicians were ending a difficult week, with a poll published on Friday in Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, suggesting that a majority of Israelis felt that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government had failed in managing the war in Lebanon.

The poll, by the Dahaf Institute, an independent polling concern, said that 63 percent of Israelis polled said they wanted Olmert to quit; 74 percent thought Amir Peretz, the Labor Party leader, should resign as defense minister; and 54 percent wanted the chief of staff of the military, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, to step down. The poll was based on 499 responses and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Also on Friday, several hundred reservists and some parents of soldiers who died in Lebanon went to the tomb of Golda Meir, who resigned as prime minister after the 1973 war, and called for Olmert, Peretz and Halutz to do the same.

The polls were released during a week of embarrassments for politicians, with two days of police interrogation of the country's largely ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav, on accusations that he forced an employee to have a sexual relationship, and the resignation of the justice minister, Haim Ramon, to fight charges of sexual harassment from a female soldier, 18, who claims that he kissed her against her will.

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