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Gunmen seize building as Gaza unrest escalates

Two Palestinians killed by Israeli artillery fire

JERUSALEM -- The sense of lawlessness deepened in the Gaza Strip yesterday, as gunmen demanding jobs briefly seized a government building in the central town of Deir el Balah.

Another group of armed men, including off-duty police, set up an impromptu roadblock near the Gaza-Egypt border, threatening to prevent VIPs from crossing, as part of a fight between police and a local clan.

Last night, Israeli artillery fire killed two Palestinian militants in northern Gaza after a rocket was fired from the area toward Israel, Palestinian security officials said. A Palestinian witness said artillery shells fired from the direction of Israel exploded near the men, who were in a field on the outskirts of the town of Beit Lahiya.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said troops near the border fired shells at a group of Palestinian militants who had armed a rocket launcher and prepared to fire it toward Israel.

On Friday, Palestinian policemen went on a rampage over the killing of a colleague and seized the Gaza-Egypt border crossing for several hours, forcing European monitors to flee.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas warned that the unrest in Gaza could hurt economic development and Palestinian statehood aspirations. But he said the chaos would not derail parliament elections set for Jan. 25.

A British human rights activist released by Gaza kidnappers said yesterday she would stay in the region despite threats by militants to seize more foreigners. Kate Burton, 25, and her parents, Hugh and Helen, were freed in Gaza late Friday and driven to Jerusalem in armored cars. In a statement issued yesterday, the Burtons said they were treated ''extremely well" during their ordeal. Hugh and Helen Burton were to leave for Europe over the weekend, British officials said.

Kate Burton is expected to return to Gaza within several days to resume working for the group Al-Mezan, said its head, Kamal Sharafi.

The Burtons' abduction was the latest in a rash of kidnappings of foreigners by Palestinian gunmen.

Palestinian security officials said the Burtons were abducted by gunmen with ties to Abbas's Fatah group. The kidnappers said they were members of a previously unknown group, the Mujahedeen Brigades Jerusalem Branch.

The group threatened more abductions of foreigners if Israel does not abolish its ''no-go" zone in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel imposed the off-limits area this week to prevent rocket fire and has threatened to shoot anyone entering the zone.

The kidnappers said they released the hostages after receiving assurances that Britain and the European Union would seek an end to the Israeli buffer zone. British officials denied that a deal was struck. The kidnappers said they would seize international election observers if their demands were not met.

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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