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Two Western Journalists Kidnapped in Gaza Strip

Heavily armed Palestinian gunmen have abducted an American newspaper reporter and a British photographer in the Gaza strip. Kidnappings of Westerners in the Gaza Strip have become more frequent recently, as violence and lawlessness have increased since Israel's unilateral pullout from the area last month.

Palestinian security forces have mounted an intensive search for the two journalists who were abducted from their car near the Gaza strip town of Khan Younis.

The American journalist has been identified as a correspondent for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. A British photographer was also abducted.

A translator traveling with the two men said they were driving along the Gaza coast when they were cut off by gunmen who had been following them. The translator who was set free said the two men were taken toward the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The Reuters news agency quotes a Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman as saying the men were believed to have been abducted by a breakaway faction of President Mahmoud Abbas Fatah group.

Kidnappings of foreign journalists and individuals working for development organizations have increased recently in Gaza. In most cases those abducted have not been harmed and have been released within hours.

Violence among Palestinian factions and a general breakdown of law and order in the Gaza Strip have raised fears that extensive development plans for the area might have to put on hold, and also that Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January might be postponed.

Palestinian Legislative Council Director General Mahmoud Labadi says the situation is serious. "We really have a problem. We have uncontrolled elements, whether on the Fatah side or the Hamas side. I think those elements who were financed and supported before by President Arafat, and those supported by finances from abroad, by international Islamic tendencies, I think they pose a problem to the government. It is difficult to control them and disarm them," he said.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian commission investigating the death of Yasser Arafat has issued a report which says it is unable to determine exactly what caused Mr. Arafat's death. Mr. Arafat died in a French hospital last November after a two-week illness.

The report was released by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who said that French doctors had determined that neither virus nor bacteria was responsible for the Palestinian leader's death. Mr. Qureia also denied reports that he would resign before his term ends, as some Palestinian legislators are demanding.