No clues to fate of family kidnapped in Gaza

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The kidnapping of a British human rights worker and her parents by gunmen remained a mystery last night, with no claims of responsibility and no leads as to the family's whereabouts more than 24 hours after they were seized.

Palestinian and British officials admitted they still had no information on the fate of Kate Burton and her family since they were forced into a car by armed militants in the southern Gaza border town of Rafah on Wednesday.

Amid increasing concern over mounting lawlessness in Gaza, the kidnapping did not follow the pattern of most others involving foreigners over the past six months, which have tended to end in the swift release of the victims.

Police roadblocks set up throughout southern Gaza and a series of contacts by Palestinian security officials with known armed groups failed to elicit any explanation for the kidnap of Ms Burton, who, from the description of friends and colleagues, is a well-liked and fluent Arabic speaker who enjoys living in Gaza, loves children, and works tirelessly for Palestinian causes.

At Al Mezan, the human rights agency where Ms Burton, in her mid-twenties, was the only foreigner on the paid staff, the head of research, Ala'a Matter, said all 30 of its staff were "out in the field". "Our people are talking to the armed factions, to family leaders, even drug dealers to try and find something out."

Rafik Al Abed, the caretaker at the Gaza City apartment block where Ms Burton had a second-floor flat, said he believed that she had spent Christmas in Bethlehem with her parents and brother before returning to Gaza with just her father, believed to be a Brussels-based international civil servant, and her mother. "I saw them on Monday night and they said they were going out," Mr Al Abed said.

On Wednesday morning the family breakfasted at the Al Deira hotel before setting out for Rafah, the Gaza town on the Egyptian border hardest hit by the last five years of conflict.

Dareen and Omar Abu Jahal, a young Palestinian couple who befriended Ms Burton when she worked earlier this year for the Gaza-based Institute of Development studies, said they were in shock. "She is a lovely person," Mr Abu Jahal said. "I warned her about kidnapping but she made a joke about it."

His wife added: "She is a woman who knows how to get out of a difficult situation and she speaks Arabic with a nice accent."

Mrs Abu Jahal said Ms Burton had told her that most of her friends here were Palestinians rather than other expatriates. "She worked very hard and then she also gave English lessons in the early evening."

The kidnap is fresh evidence of what many Palestinians see as a serious deterioration of internal law and order in the Strip, coming at the same time as the Israelis have stepped up the firing of artillery shells and air-to-ground missiles on northern Gaza because of what they see as the Palestinian Authority's failure to curb Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli targets. Only yesterday, as the hunt for the Burtons' kidnappers continued, a policeman was killed by gunmen pursuing a family feud. Armed gunmen also briefly took over the Shojaia police station in Gaza City yesterday.

But NGO and faction members - including a Hamas representative, Sami Abu Zuhri - took part in a demonstration yesterday against the spate of kidnappings, which an Al Mezan statement said "deform the image of Palestinians and misinterpret their cause to the world." The agency added that Ms Burton had "worked hard on backing up Palestinians and exposing Israeli violations against Palestinian civilians".

A statement issued in the name of the Burton family said: "Kate is a warm and loving person who has been working in Gaza trying to help the situation there."