British worker seized with her parents in Gaza

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The Independent Online

A British human rights worker and her parents have been kidnapped close to the Gaza border with Egypt in the latest of a series of seizures by militants of foreigners in the Strip.

Kate Burton, who is in her twenties, and her parents - thought to be visiting her for the Christmas holidays - were apparently forced out of the car they were using in the southern border town of Rafah and into another vehicle, said to have been a white Mercedes, which drove northwards.

Ms Burton, who according to unconfirmed reports comes from Scotland, and is believed to have a master's degree in international law, has worked for Al-Mezan, a Palestinian human rights organisation in Gaza, for the past three to four months as the co-ordinator for international affairs. Most kidnap victims in Gaza have been released unharmed after a few hours though the Foreign Office this month upgraded earlier warnings by advising Britons against "all travel" to Gaza because of the other kidnappings. Earlier it had cautioned only against "non- essential" travel.

A British diplomat said last night he remained "optimistic" that the Burton family would be freed soon.

The British consulate-general in Jerusalem said it had been in touch with the Palestinian police and preventive security organisations and believed the militant group who had taken the family was a small one called the Black Panthers.

The British official added that it was believed the militants' motive was to press the Palestinian Authority (PA) for salaried jobs and also to protest against the prevention of suspected militants crossing the border at Rafah. The PA are controlling the border in a regime closely monitored by the European Union.

Although Al-Mezan has strongly criticised Israel for its military operations in Gaza and for turning the Strip into a "big prison", it has also been forthright in its criticism of Palestinian lawlessness, including the recent spate of kidnappings. It issued a strong statement after the most recent kidnapping as a continuation of the state of insecurity and disrespect of the rule of the law. It called on the PA "in such cases... [to] bring kidnappers to justice under any circumstances".

In that incident, on 21 December, the Dutch principal of the American School in Gaza, Hendrik Taatgen, and his assistant, Brian Ambrosio, were seized in northern Gaza by militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine (PFLP). The group said the abduction had been to press the PA to release leaders jailed in the West Bank town of Jericho for the killing of the Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001. The two men were released unharmed some eight hours after their capture.

Mohammed Abdullah, a Rafah fieldworker for Al-Mezan, said that Ms Burton had been on leave for Christmas. Samir Zahut, a co-ordinator for the organisation, said that he thought Ms Burton was about 23 and he thought she might have wanted to show her parents houses in Rafah which had been demolished by the Israelis.