Israelis on alert after kidnap to free sheikh

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL was last night facing a major security alert after a border guard was kidnapped by Islamic extremists who threatened to execute him if their leader was not released from an Israeli jail.

The gunmen, members of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, demanded the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, aged 57, who was jailed for life by an Israeli military court in 1991 for killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

A statement by the kidnappers said Nissim Toledano, a staff sergeant major, would be killed at 9pm local time, if their demands were not met. The drama reached a pitch last night when Sheikh Yassin, who is reported to be severely ill in jail, appeared on Israel television just as the deadline expired, and told the kidnappers not to kill the guard, but to give Israel more time to come to a deal.

Last night the Israeli army and police were carrying out a search throughout Israel and the occupied territories in an effort to find the kidnappers who abducted Sgt- Maj Toledano early yesterday morning from outside his home in Lod, in central Israel. Reports suggested that the authorities believe he was being held somewhere in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Israeli army late last night ordered the closing of the West Bank and maintained the closure of the Gaza Strip, cutting off 1.8 million Palestinians from the rest of the world. After midnight last night, Palestinians would not be allowed to enter Israel and would have to return home.

The apparent ease with which the kidnapping was executed in the centre of Israel has added to the sense of fear, and last night the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, spoke of a grave security situation. The alert has heightened Israeli awareness of the threat posed by Hamas, which has growing support in the occupied territories, vying with the PLO for leadership of the uprising. Hamas has recently carried out a number of well-planned armed attacks against Israeli soldiers and suspected Palestinian collaborators.

The attacks, coming as the Middle East peace talks have run into the ground, have led some ministers to call for Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, but Mr Rabin has ruled this out.