RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – The Palestinian security services were behind the abductions of four local Hamas leaders from their West Bank homes, the Islamic militant group and a security official said Friday, reflecting rising tension between the group and the Palestinian Authority.

A spokesman for the security forces denied the claim, but a senior security official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the involvement of the security services and members of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.

He said the abductions were meant as a warning to Hamas to lie low following a series of deadly clashes between its gunmen and police in Gaza.

The four Hamas members were taken from their homes at gunpoint Thursday night. By Friday evening three of them – a university professor from Tulkarem, a high school teacher from Nablus and a Hebron businessman – had been released.

The Nablus teacher, Kamal Shaheen, said Friday he was taken by 15 armed men in civilian clothes, and one showed him a work ID from the Palestinian intelligence service. Shaheen said he was questioned in an office of the intelligence service in Nablus and told he was snatched because of recent events in Gaza.

The abductions came just hours after a senior intelligence officer in Gaza City, Sami Ajouri, was snatched from his car, shot in the leg and bundled into another vehicle. Ajouri was later released, and Hamas denied allegations it was behind the kidnapping.

Last weekend, three Palestinians, including a police officer, were killed in clashes between Hamas gunmen and Palestinian police in Gaza City. During the confrontations, Hamas fired rocket-propelled grenades at a Palestinian police station, and police later protested they did not have enough firepower to take on the gunmen.

The senior Palestinian security official said Friday the abductions of the West Bank activists were a message to Hamas that it had gone too far. He said that if Hamas in Gaza did not heed the warnings, its activists in the West Bank would be targeted again. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, denied that the security forces were involved.

“This is an absolutely false allegation,” Abu Khoussa said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the abductions were well-planned.

“The kidnappers were not far from the security apparatus,” he said.

Tensions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have been running high since Abbas decided last week to enforce a ban on displaying weapons in public. In Gaza City, Palestinian police have set up roadblocks, searched cars and confiscated assault rifles and other weapons.

Hamas has agreed to the weapons ban but accuses the Palestinian police of going too far in searching cars and taking weapons.

It remains unclear whether Abbas will press ahead with the campaign or step back to avoid further conflict with Hamas. He is under growing international pressure to disarm Hamas but has resisted, saying that at this stage, he will not seize weapons kept at home.

Abbas was to meet next week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ahead of Oct. 20 talks in Washington with President Bush. On Friday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Sharon aide Dov Weisglass met to prepare the Sharon-Abbas summit and said they would hold more talks Sunday.

Also Friday, more than 200 Palestinian police arrested 30 suspected car thieves and drug dealers in a high-profile crackdown on crime in the West Bank town of Yatta. Residents said they could not remember such a large-scale raid in their town, known for its chop shops and rings of car thieves.

“This campaign was ordered by political leaders to enforce law and order and to bring justice to normal Palestinians and make the Palestinian people feel safe,” said Hebron-area police chief Ahmed Rabai. “This campaign will continue not only in Yatta town, but also in other villages and in the city of Hebron itself.”

Abbas is under pressure from his people to fight growing lawlessness, seen as a major threat to his rule. Earlier this week, parliament ordered him to reshuffle his Cabinet and make crime-fighting his top priority.


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