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Kidnapped Britons Freed in Gaza; Palestinian Militants Briefly Occupy Government Buildings

Palestinian militants have freed three kidnapped Britons in the Gaza Strip. The abduction underscores the breakdown of law and order since Israel pulled out of the territory three months ago.

A 25-year-old British human rights activist and her parents were freed in Gaza by Palestinian gunmen who abducted them on Wednesday.

Kate Burton, her father Hugh and mother Helen were unharmed. A previously unknown group, called the Brigades of the Mujahideen-Jerusalem, said it kidnapped the family to demand British and European pressure on Israel.

The kidnapping embarrassed the Palestinian Authority, which is seeking international support for the creation of an independent state. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat:

"And for such criminals to do this abduction, they're destroying our cause," said Saeb Erekat. "They are harming us. They're harming our image. They're harming our just cause."

Gaza has plunged into armed chaos since Israel pulled out in September. After the kidnapped British family was released, about 50 masked gunmen occupied Palestinian government offices in the Gaza town of Deir el Balah for several hours demanding jobs. They left the building after Palestinian officials agreed to discuss their demands.

Israeli analyst Michael Widlansky says Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has lost control.

"He is like the invisible man in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, and his leadership is disappearing before our eyes," he said.

Mr. Abbas is a moderate, who supports the peace process, but his inability to restore law and order has strengthened the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel. Hamas, which is responsible for dozens of deadly suicide bombings against Israelis, is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. But Hamas may soon be sharing power with the Palestinian Authority. The group is expected to make a strong showing in landmark parliamentary elections on January 25.