Palestinian gunmen release US student after 24 hours

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The Independent Online

An American volunteer was freed unharmed last night after being held for a day by Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus in a bizarre kidnapping.

Michael Leighton Phillips, 24, was brought to the home of a former Nablus mayor, Ghassan Shakaa. He was accompanied by about 20 gunmen from the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, who claimed credit for freeing him. Al-Aqsa is a violent group linked to the Fatah movement, headed by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

Even after the hostage was freed, it was unclear who had kidnapped him or what they wanted. The al-Aqsa men said they spotted a suspicious car and stopped it, finding Mr Phillips and four of his captors inside. They freed the American, but the kidnappers escaped, they said, adding they did not know who the kidnappers were.

Looking shaken but uninjured, Mr Phillips, a volunteer teacher with the Candaian-based Project Hope, said he hoped to remain in Nablus. "I don't want to leave," he told reporters. He said he was kidnapped on Tuesday.

Mr Phillips, from Louisiana, was seated at a table as news cameramen photographed him. He thanked the people who helped win his freedom. Later he talked by telephone to his family and to President Abbas.

Standing near Mr Phillips, the local Fatah leader, Jamal Tirawi, criticised the Hamas-led government over the kidnapping, calling on the Interior Minister, Said Siyam, of Hamas, who heads security services, to "do his job".

Rumors of the kidnapping swept through the West Bank early yesterday. A previously unknown group calling itself Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility and sent a foreign news agency a photocopy of his passport.