I'm going back to Gaza, says freed British human rights worker

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The Independent Online

Kate Burton, the freed British human rights worker, has told friends that she wants to return to Gaza, despite the 58 hours she and her parents were held by armed Palestinian kidnappers.

Ms Burton, 24, and her parents Hugh and Helen, were handed over directly to British officials by the kidnappers in Gaza City early yesterday, more than two days after being seized at gunpoint by masked militants just outside the southern border town of Rafah.

A delicately worded statement issued by the family yesterday said that Ms Burton, who is employed by the Gaza based Al-Mezan human rights organisation, "plans to stay in the region and continue working with the Palestinian people". It added that the family were in good health and had been treated "extremely well" during their ordeal.

After her release Ms Burton, who was brought with her parents by British diplomats to Jerusalem yesterday, told Danilo de la Torre, a friend who works for a Ramallah-based Spanish NGO, that after a period of initial "nervousness" she became certain that the family would be treated well by her kidnappers. "She said she was quite sure that nothing was going to happen to them," Mr De La Torre told The Independent on Sunday.

Mr De La Torre, 28, said that Ms Burton, whom friends describe as a "very strong person", had told him she had been watching BBC World TV in a Gaza safe house - one of three in which the family were held during the kidnap - at around 10pm on Friday when she suddenly saw news that she and her parents had been released. "She said she thought: 'Wow. I'm still here.'"

In fact there then ensued a delay of more than four hours while the kidnappers, who British officials believe were a splinter group of the hardline Gazan Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC), negotiated the issuing of a video showing a masked gunman reading out their demands while Ms Burton stood impassively beside him.

Friends and colleagues said yesterday that Ms Burton, who the statement said "remains committed and passionate about working alongside the Palestinians", was planning an early return to Gaza . Efforts to prevent further kidnaps would be among her aims. An official said she engaged in "long ideological debates in Arabic" with her captors during the family's ordeal.

That appears to have been behind the passage in the statement saying that Ms Burton wanted to help to "improve their external image", as well as "to alleviate the difficult conditions being suffered by the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip".

According to one official, only an initial debriefing of the Burtons had taken place, because of the family's exhaustion following their ordeal. But Kate Burton may have been reluctant to give a detailed description of her captors, possibly to avoid compromising herself in the event of a return to Gaza. Although officials stressed to Ms Burton that she had been in a grave situation, one friend said the kidnappers remained masked throughout the two days, and that she had little clue as to their identity.

Ms Burton's parents, who were flying to London yesterday, will be further debriefed by two British police specialists in hostage negotiations, who went to Gaza after the kidnapping. The video released by the kidnappers called on Britain and other Western countries to put pressure on Israel to rescind the artillery and missile-enforced "buffer zone" declared in northern Gaza to stop Qassam rocket attacks, and threatened to kidnap European election monitors. But British officials think it likelier that the family was seized in protest at the refusal by Palestinian security and EU monitors to allow a PRC leader, Jamal Samhandana, to cross the Gaza border into Egypt earlier in December.

An official said the British did not know what demands, if any, had passed between the kidnappers and Palestinian security officials during what now appears to have been - despite denials at the time - 18 hours of secret negotiations in the run-up to the Burtons' release. But he was adamant that there had been no negotiations with the British themselves. The Burtons had been handed over to the British directly because the kidnappers did not want to add credence to the Palestinian Authority.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, said the kidnapping was the work of "criminals", adding: "We urge all Palestinians to make this the last such despicable act that harms and destroys Palestinian interests."

There was a last-minute hitch in the handover early yesterday when Mr Burton, 73, a Brussels-based economist, mistook the crew of a Palestinian Preventative Security car shadowing the British officials' vehicle for another group of kidnappers. He ran off before being bodily escorted back to their car by British diplomats