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Israelis free abducted taxi driver, warn Arabs

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 16, 2003

JERUSALEM - Israeli special forces stormed a house in the West Bank early today and freed a taxi driver from his Palestinian captors, the military said, ending an abduction that threatened a tenuous Mideast cease-fire.

Eliyahu Goral, 61, was rescued hours after a Palestinian group claimed responsibility for the fatal stabbing of an Israeli sitting with his girlfriend on a seaside bench. Israel's foreign minister warned that Palestinian officials were running out of time to disarm the militants, a step Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has refused to take.

Israel TV reported that the kidnappers were criminals who were trying to win favor with militant groups and the Palestinian Authority, but no group agreed to take the Israeli from them. The kidnappers had no affiliation with any militant group, the report said.

The military statement said the arrest of two members of the kidnappers' gang earlier in the evening made the rescue possible.

Goral had been missing since Friday night, when his taxi was found with its motor running in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, and signs pointed to a kidnapping.

Israeli special forces stormed the house where Goral was held in Beitunia, a suburb of Ramallah, freeing him without a struggle, Israel Radio said.

Despite the rescue, U.S.-backed peace moves remained deadlocked, with Palestinians balking at a crackdown on the militants, and Israel refusing to pull out of West Bank towns as a result.

The stalemate is raising doubts about a 2-week-old truce that has led to a sharp decline in violence.

The lull has enabled the sides to begin implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace, a blueprint for ending 33 months of violence and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.

But Palestinian leaders and the militant groups warn that Israel must release the 7,000 prisoners it holds for the truce to hold. The issue does not appear in the road map, and Israeli officials say they will in any case not release militants involved in attacks that killed Israelis.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is seen as a moderate and is backed by the United States and Israel, also has resisted calls to forcibly disarm the militant groups, saying he does not want to trigger a civil war and will use persuasion alone.

In the latest attack, a Palestinian armed with a long double-bladed dagger tried to enter a seaside restaurant in south Tel Aviv. A security guard stopped him and he stabbed the guard in the neck before fleeing.

As the attacker fled he came across Amir Simhon, 24, who was sitting on a bench with his girlfriend, Shalhevet Ulkashi, police said.

The attacker tried to stab Ulkashi but Simhon grabbed her and blocked the knife, suffering fatal wounds, police said. The attacker ran but was shot in the leg by a reserve army officer.

A statement posted on the Internet site of al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a group affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack. Although the truce includes Fatah, al-Aqsa is loosely organized and leaders of some branches have refused to abide by the cease-fire.

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