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Arafat-led panel declares state of emergency

GAZA CITY -- A security panel headed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared a state of emergency in the Gaza Strip early today after a wave of kidnappings involving a Palestinian police chief, a security official, and four French citizens.

Although most of the hostages were later freed, the crisis raised questions about the future of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's government, which will meet today.

The deteriorating situation reflected the growing disagreements among militant groups and individuals trying to strengthen their positions before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fulfills his pledge to withdraw Israeli forces and some 7,500 settlers from Gaza late next year.

The kidnappings prompted two senior Palestinian security officials to submit their resignations, but Arafat refused to accept them.

Arafat has been attempting to fend off criticism from some Palestinian officials, unhappy about the pace of government reform and the persistence of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Arafat's popularity has waned as tensions have escalated.

Qureia replaced Mahmoud Abbas in September 2003, but for most of his time in office has languished in Arafat's shadow. Abbas resigned as prime minister after four months, complaining he was hamstrung by Arafat.

At about midday yesterday, gunmen abducted the Palestinian police chief, Ghazi Jabali, after attacking his vehicle in a highway ambush south of Gaza City.

Two of his bodyguards were wounded in a shootout. The militants apparently were angry about not getting jobs with the security forces.

Younger militants have been carrying out suicide attacks against Israelis and bearing the brunt of Israeli retaliatory strikes, and they now are seeking more prominent roles in Palestinian security organizations.

Hours later, Palestinian Authority officials negotiated the release of Jabali.

A group from the little-known Jenin Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for the abduction.

Shortly after Jabali's release, the director of military coordination in southern Gaza, Colonel Khaled Abu Aloula, was seized from his car while returning to Gaza City from Khan Younis. Palestinian security officials blamed recently fired policemen whose request for reinstatement was refused by Aloula.

Militants then kidnapped four French citizens drinking coffee at a cafe in Khan Younis and held them at the offices of the Red Crescent Society there. Hours later, the four -- two men and two women -- were released unharmed by the gunmen, who said they acted to draw world attention to Palestinian suffering caused by Israel's occupation.

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