GAZA (Reuters) – A 25-year-old human rights worker and her parents were freed in the Gaza Strip on Friday by the Palestinian gunmen who kidnapped them two days earlier.
A previously unknown group calling itself Brigades of the Mujahideen-Jerusalem said it seized Kate Burton, her father Hugh and mother Helen to demand British and European pressure on Israel and freed them as a gesture of goodwill.
The Burtons passed through Gaza City briefly before being whisked away towards Israel in diplomatic cars with darkened windows.
“They are well and in good spirits. They are currently with officials from our Consulate General in Jerusalem,” said a statement from the Foreign Office.
“She was not hurt, her parents were okay and she plans to visit Gaza next week,” said Adnan Hajjar, a colleague of Burton’s. “Kate said she was sorry that she could not make it to the hotel to greet everybody.”
In a video released to media, a masked gunman read out a message standing next to Kate Burton, who appeared with her hands behind her back.
“We have decided to pardon the three Britons as a gesture of goodwill in return for a seriousness in answering our demands,” the gunman said.
Burton and her visiting parents were seized in the chaotic southern town of Rafah on the Egyptian border on Wednesday. Kidnappers, armed with automatic rifles, pulled over their car and bundled them into another vehicle that sped away.
The political demands and Islamist tone of the captors were a marked departure from previous kidnappings in the Gaza Strip, whose perpetrators tended to be seeking jobs or the release of prisoners and set free their hostages within hours.
The fact the kidnappers made no contact for two days had raised concerns for the Britons’ safety.
“We thank everyone who has worked so tirelessly towards this moment, especially Kate’s colleagues and friends in Gaza, who kept all our hopes up throughout this ordeal,” said a statement from the Burton family released through the Foreign Office.
The kidnappers said that they wanted British and EU pressure on Israel to end the “no-go zone” it imposed in northern Gaza this week to stop rocket fire, to free prisoners, pull back troops in the occupied West Bank and end assassinations of militant leaders.
They threatened to kidnap EU monitors of Palestinian elections due next month if the demands were not met.
Gaza has seen a rash of kidnappings since Israel quit the coastal territory in September after 38 years of occupation, a move welcomed internationally as a potential spur to peace but which left the Palestinian Authority struggling for control.
The kidnapping of the three Britons, and the international attention that it drew, came as a fresh embarrassment for President Mahmoud Abbas.
Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the release.
“I hope that this will be the last kidnapping on our land. It harms our interests and our cause like nothing else,” he told Reuters.
A Dutchman and an Australian, teachers at a Gaza school, were briefly abducted last week by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which demanded that its leaders be released from jail.
As Burton worked for Al Mazen, a group that documents alleged Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights, her abduction sparked popular protests in Gaza.
The Burton family released a statement in London that “Kate is a warm and loving person, and has been working as a volunteer in Gaza for the past year, trying to do what she can to help the situation there.”
The gunman said that the group held Britain responsible for “the tragedies of the Palestinians” since 1948, when Israel was formed from part of what had been the British mandate of Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were driven from their homes in the Arab-Israeli war at the time.