NABLUS, West Bank – Palestinian kidnappers won promises of payoffs for themselves and for comrades in Israeli prisons Saturday in exchange for freeing three foreign church workers including an American, Palestinian officials said.

The promises by the Palestinian Authority came in a new test of strength between militant groups and the security forces, which recently were put under the authority of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

The flare-up indicated that the agreement last week by Qureia and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to share control of the security forces has failed to calm the underlying tensions that led to a paralyzing leadership crisis between the two men.

Five gunmen seized the three church volunteers – an American, a Briton and an Irishmen – Friday night near their apartments and took them to the Balata refugee camp.

At around the same time, about a dozen armed men broke into the governor’s building in the northern West Bank town of Jenin and set it on fire.

Both groups demanded financial support from the Palestinian Authority, which gives unofficial payments to militants sought by Israel, according to security officials and the militants themselves.

The Palestinian Authority officially denies that it funds the militants, but some officials, including lawmakers, say support is given to militants who pledge not to attack targets inside Israel.

Officials said the kidnappers, who belonged to a splinter group of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, were told that all their demands will be met and that the abduction was undermining the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world.

The demands were for an unspecified amount of support for themselves and for imprisoned comrades, the officials said. They said Arafat approved the promise.

The militants drove the hostages to a park early Saturday and called the security forces to pick them up, the officials said.

The foreigners were first taken to the Nablus office of the Palestinian intelligence, then spent the rest of the night as guests of Ghassan Shaka’a, a close Arafat aide.

The released hostages refused to speak to reporters, and their identities were not released.

The chief of Palestinian intelligence services in Nablus, Talal Duikat, said Saturday that his forces were searching for four suspects wanted in the kidnappings. The suspects did not belong to any specific group, Duikat said.

Palestinian security forces were “shocked” by the kidnappings and Arafat instructed them by phone to do everything to get the captives released quickly, Duikat said.

“The kidnappings have grave significance for the Palestinian people,” Duikat told a news conference. “I say to the entire world that we will protect every person who comes to visit us and they don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

In Jenin, the local commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Zakaria Zubeidi, and his followers gutted the headquarters of the newly appointed governor, Qaddora Mousa. The building was empty, and no one was hurt.

Zubeidi made no attempt to hide his identity, and returned to the burned-out building in the morning brandishing an assault rifle for the benefit of photographers.

“This day was my first day in my office, but unfortunately I have to take it when it is burned down,” Mousa said.

told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Mousa said he was not responsible for supporting the militants but that their demands should be addressed through negotiations rather than violence.

“We should sit together around the table to settle any problem,” he said.

A similar spate of kidnappings and attacks on the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip earlier this month triggered the crisis between Arafat and Qureia. Four French volunteers were among those briefly kidnapped in Gaza.

The immediate crisis ended when Qureia withdrew his resignation following Arafat’s pledge to give the Cabinet more authority.

In the Gaza Strip on Saturday, about 200 women marched from the town of Beit Lahiya to Beit Hanoun to protest a monthlong Israeli military operation to stop rocket fire on Israeli settlements and towns.

“The people of Beit Hanoun are suffering for one month due to the Israeli war machine. It’s time for the world to say no and end the aggression,” said Jamila Syeem, a Palestinian legislator.

Army troops fired warning shots to stop the marchers from entering sensitive area. Israeli bulldozers have cleared hundreds of acres of farmland to expose rocket launching sites.


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