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Egyptian official abducted in Gaza Strip

JERUSALEM—Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip kidnapped an Egyptian military attache on Thursday in the worst upsurge in violence since the Islamic militant group Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament in last month's elections.

The kidnapping, following a string of attacks along the main border between Gaza and Israel, has raised concerns that militants allied with the declining Fatah Party may try to undermine the new Hamas government by provoking Israel.

Palestinian sources said masked gunmen seized the Egyptian attache, Hussam Almousaly, in the middle of the day not far from the Egyptian office in Gaza City. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority condemned the abduction.

Almousaly is the highest profile figure to be abducted in the Gaza Strip, where armed gangs have kidnapped nearly two dozen Westerners since last summer. Most of the kidnappings have been brief, done in an effort to obtain security jobs with the Palestinian Authority or secure the release of prisoners.

Almousaly was kidnapped the same morning that two militant teams staged assaults on the Gaza Strip's northern border with Israel.

Shortly before dawn, according to the Israeli military, two Palestinians armed with grenades, an explosive belt and machine guns attacked the Erez Crossing before Israeli soldiers killed them. A few hours later, the Israeli military said, one Palestinian was killed and another was wounded while trying to plant explosives east of the border crossing.

The attacks and abduction come at the end of a violent week during which Israel killed nine Palestinians in targeted Gaza Strip assassinations.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement earlier this week that "targeted killings place innocent bystanders at grave risk and amount to executions without trial."

Among those killed were militants with Islamic Jihad, the group responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Israel over the past year, and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group aligned with the Fatah Party.

Israel stepped up its aerial attacks after four Israelis were injured by a homemade rocket launched from the Gaza Strip. Three rockets were fired into Israel Thursday night, but none caused injuries.

The increasing violence poses challenges for Hamas, which is preparing to form the next Palestinian government. Hamas spent years spearheading the suicide bombing campaign against Israel. It has largely honored a temporary cease-fire over the past year, but it's resisting international pressure to disarm its military wing. Disarmament of Palestinian military groups is one of the steps outlined in the U.S.-backed road map toward an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

If Hamas decides to form a government and take control of security forces, it would fall to its ministers to crack down on any militants who attack Israel. Some Al Aqsa militant leaders have been threatening to step up their attacks.

Hamas controls at least 74 of 132 seats in the next Palestinian legislature. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is expected to ask Hamas to form the new Cabinet, but Hamas is facing threats of international isolation if it runs the government without renouncing violence and accepting Israel's right to live side by side with a Palestinian state.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush contributed to this report from Gaza City.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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