Palestinian PM Calls for Release of Kidnapped Journalists

Tuesday , August 22, 2006



GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — 

It's the scariest kidnapping of foreigners ever in the Gaza Strip.

After more than a week, there's been no word on the fate of two Fox News journalists Olaf Wiig and Steve Centanni, and their captors haven't come forward with demands. Authorities are not even sure who their captors are.

"Ordinary" Gaza kidnappings — more than two dozen foreigners were snatched in the past two years — follow a clear pattern.

Militants boast of their success within hours, followed by demands for jobs or freedom for jailed relatives, then brief negotiations and finally the release of those abducted, often the same day.

Abductees routinely bear tales of being served tea and robust meals of rice and meat, passing the time watching TV or chatting with their captors.

But the abduction of Wiig, 36, a cameraman from New Zealand, and Centanni, 60, a reporter from the U.S., has everyone puzzled. The men were abducted from their TV van near the Palestinian security services headquarters in Gaza City on Aug. 15 and haven't been heard from since.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh forcefully condemned the kidnappings.

"Such acts harm all the Palestinians and harm the image of our struggle for freedom and contradict the values and morals and traditions of the Palestinians," Haniyeh told reporters Tuesday. "The government is exerting its maximum efforts to guarantee the safety and the freedom of the two guests in Palestine."

In the absence of solid leads, speculation was rife.

According to one theory, the kidnappers are Hamas militants, bitter because they were not given government jobs after Hamas won January parliamentary elections and took control of the Cabinet.

Others speculate that militants from the rival Fatah Party carried out the abduction to embarrass Hamas, which has sought to establish its authority in Gaza.

One senior police official, who has worked on freeing other captured foreigners, said the kidnappers might be from the Palestinians' chaotic security forces, which are in open rivalry with each other and are not cooperating in the search for the journalists.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Gaza is not Iraq, and no kidnapped foreigner has been harmed. But the unusual circumstances of the latest kidnapping have raised concern for the men's safety.

"This is a different pattern from the normal hostage taking in Gaza," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Tuesday. "Normally people would have been released by now. These ones haven't and that's what's cause for concern."

The kidnapping, stretching into its eighth day, is also a test for the Hamas-lead Palestinian Authority, which defeated Fatah on a platform promising to restore order to the chaotic streets of Gaza and the West Bank.

"Everybody is under no illusions that this has potential to add to the government's credibility, and everybody will be disappointed if they can't (find the kidnapped men)," said Peter Rider, a New Zealand diplomat sent to Gaza to lead efforts to secure Wiig's release.

Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, spokeswoman for the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, said the U.S. government had not received any information on the journalists.

"We are working with the Palestinian services to try to find these individuals and ensure their release," she said, adding that Consul-General Jacob Walles raised the issue of the hostages in his meeting Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Anita McNaught, Wiig's wife, has been speaking to anyone who will listen to try to free her husband, and Centanni's brother spoke to the Arabic language station Al Jazeera to appeal for the men's release.

Most foreign reporters left Gaza — despite Israel's ongoing offensive there — to cover Israel's battle with Hezbollah in the north.

Now, it's unlikely many of them will return.