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Rough justice by local hero holds Nablus in thrall

Some people in Nablus were overjoyed last week to hear that Ahmed Tabouq, the 30-year-old gunman who rules part of their city, had died of his wounds after a gun battle. For six months they had denounced him as a local Al Capone, a racketeer who filled the power vacuum between the end of Israeli control of Nablus and the start of Palestinian self-rule.

Their joy did not last long. Reports of Mr Tabouq's demise were premature. Within hours of the Israeli media announcing his death, he appeared at a demonstration of his sup porters, waving his M-16 assault rifle above his head.

Hated and feared by the better-off in Nablus, the largest Palestinian city on the West Bank, Mr Tabouq remains a hero to the 30,000 people who live in the tangle of narrow streets in the Old City. "He never shot a good man," one sympathiser said. "They were all collaborators with the Israelis."

Among human rights groups in Jerusalem, Mr Tabouq and his men are notorious for knee-capping their victims, a practice hitherto uncommon on the West Bank. In an interview, Mr Tabouq defended shooting collaborators in the legs as better than shooting them in the head.

Getting to see Mr Tabouq is not easy. He is more careful about his security than most Palestinian leaders. He does not like to move outside the Old City. Visitors must send a message saying they want to meet him, and then wait in a designated house at which he will turn up with his bodyguards at a moment of his own choosing.

Dressed in a black track suit and a keffiyeh, he chain-smokes while he explains his rise to power. "I came out of prison two years ago and I wanted to do something for my city," he said. "There was no authority here. The Fatah Hawks [his organisation] are the only group to give protection against thieves and collaborators."

Amin al-Jamayel, one of his lieutenants, says Mr Tabouq's generation of Palestinians feel they fought and suffered in the intifada from 1987 to 1992 and now want a role, once the Israelis have departed. They do not want the notable families to re-establish their grip.

"People want their rights, because they went to prison, were injured, or saw their brothers or fathers killed," Mr al-Jamayel said.

In fact, the rise of Mr Tabouq's gang was a little more complicated, and stems from a mistake made by Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader to whom Mr Tabouq protests his loyalty.

In March this year, Mr Arafat appointed Issam Abu Bakr, who was not from Nablus, to head the military wing of Fatah in the city. He proved unpopular. Mr Tabouq formed a breakaway group, although the source of his weapons - an M-16 costs $10,000 (pounds 650) and a pistol about $4,000 - remains a mystery.

Mr Tabouq often is the only effective authority to whom people can appeal. A Jordanian tourist who was robbed says he went to the Israelis, who said they could do nothing because they were leaving. The Palestinian police said they were not yet in control. Finally, in desperation, he went to Mr Tabouq and his men. They caught the thieves in two hours and gave him back his money.

Israeli troops pulled out of Tulkarm, a town of 20,000 yesterday and will formally leave Nablus on Thursday. "I have received a message from Arafat saying we will get jobs in the police force," Mr Tabouq said. He has been promised employment in the homicide section of the new 1,200- strong security force, a post many in Nablus feel he is well qualified to fill.