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Hostage freed in shootout

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian security officers stormed a building where an Italian hostage was being held Sunday, freeing the man in a shootout with his kidnappers.

It was a rare show of force in a wave of kidnappings, shootouts and other mayhem in the Gaza Strip that has embarrassed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, threatening to undermine his Fatah Party in Jan. 25 legislative elections and boost the Islamic militant group Hamas.

The hostage, Alessandro Bernardini, was abducted early Sunday in the town of Khan Younis. An aide in the European Parliament, he was traveling on a minibus with a delegation that included two European Union lawmakers. Armed men stopped the vehicle, forced him out and sped away with him.

After a four-hour search, Palestinian security agents burst into a Khan Younis building with guns blazing and freed Bernardini.

"We stormed the place after we surrounded it. We broke in and succeeded to release the hostage safely," said Col. Atef Ilyan of the Palestinian preventive security service. The kidnappers escaped after exchanging fire with the raiders, he said.

There were no reports of injuries, and Bernardini was escorted to Gaza City under heavy guard.

Bernardini later told reporters he was treated well in captivity, receiving tea and cigarettes, and said he remained committed to the Palestinian cause. "I'm not going to change my ideas about the Palestinians," he said.

There was no claim of responsibility, but a security official in Khan Younis said it was carried out by a small, radical group affiliated with Fatah.

Security officials also blamed Fatah-linked radicals for last week's kidnapping of a British aid worker and her parents. The Britons were freed after two days in captivity.

Gaza has experienced a rash of kidnappings of foreigners, armed takeovers of government buildings and other violence since Israel withdrew from the coastal strip in September. Early Sunday, gunmen stormed a Gaza club open only to foreigners after closing time, throwing two bombs and injuring a Palestinian guard, security officials said.

Palestinian security agencies have rarely used force in such instances, preferring to end standoffs through negotiations. Critics say Abbas' hands-off approach has encouraged more abductions.

Virtually all the violence has been carried out by elements within Fatah, and the chaos appears to stem from disarray within the long-ruling party, which faces a strong election challenge from Hamas.

With Abbas rejecting calls to delay the ballot, some factions within Fatah appear to be trying to sabotage the election in fear that Hamas will do well.

In recent weeks, Fatah-linked gunmen in two West Bank cities have threatened to raid ballot boxes on election day. And after releasing the British hostages Friday night, the kidnappers threatened to abduct European election observers.

Despite the chaos, Fatah leads Hamas heading to the ballot, according to a poll published Sunday. Fatah is favored by 43 percent of Palestinian voters and Hamas by 25 percent, pollster Khalil Shikaki said. The poll questioned 4,500 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and had a margin of error of two percentage points.

The election campaign comes amid growing violence with Israel, which last week imposed a buffer zone in the northern Gaza Strip to prevent rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and warned that anyone entering the area could be shot.

Late Saturday, two Palestinians were killed in Israel's first deadly airstrike in the no-go zone. Israel said the men were about to launch rockets.

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri threatened revenge against Israel, though he did not rule out extending a truce between Israel and the Palestinians that formally ended Saturday. The truce, declared last February, has brought a sharp drop in violence.

On Sunday afternoon, Palestinian militants fired three rockets at Israel, the Israeli military said. No damage or casualties were reported, and the army said the rockets were not fired from the buffer zone. Israel responded with an artillery barrage.