Palestinian gunmen briefly kidnapped two foreign teachers in the Gaza Strip yesterday, pulling them from their car as they headed for work to press for the release of jailed militant leaders.

The kidnapping of the Dutchman and the Australian was a sign of growing disorder that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is struggling to contain in Gaza after an Israeli pullout and ahead of a January parliamentary election.

Gunmen leapt from cars to snatch the principal and vice-principal of the English-speaking private American School in northern Gaza as they drove to work at 6.30 a.m. (0430 GMT) for the last day of term before Christmas holidays.

They were freed after eight hours, following the intervention of a lawmaker from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose militants said the abduction was to push for the release of jailed leaders.

Dutch principal Hendrik Taatgen told of how he and his Australian deputy, Brian Ambrosio, had been blindfolded and taken away in separate cars.

"I think they were hoping and aiming for Americans so they were disappointed," he said, looking shaken by the ordeal after greeting joyful pupils. Mr Ambrosio said they were treated well.

The PFLP militants said the abduction was to pressure the Palestinian Authority to release leaders jailed in the West Bank town of Jericho for killing an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001.

The PFLP leaders are guarded under US and British supervision.

"This is our first message, first to the Authority and secondly to the Zionist, American and British enemy. Our message is not directed to the peoples of the two hostages," said a PFLP statement in Gaza.

Officials from the PFLP's political wing condemned the kidnapping as an action by individuals.

Gunmen from other militias have seized foreigners on several occasions, using the captives to press the Palestinian authorities for money, jobs or the release of jailed comrades. It is the first time that the PFLP has been involved.

"So much is being neglected in Palestine today when it comes to the state of security and the rule of law," said Eyad Sarraj, chairman of the school's board. "It is time to act before it is too late."

Similar kidnappings have often been resolved within hours and the captives released unharmed, but they are an embarrassment for Mr Abbas.

The PFLP has Marxist roots and opposes peace talks with Israel. The group, which was at the forefront of air hijackings in the 1960s and 1970s, is part of Mr Abbas's umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation.

PFLP leaders detained in Jericho include Ahmed Saadat and others behind the assassination of an ultra-nationalist Israeli cabinet minister. The PFLP had said that killing was to avenge the death of one of its own leaders.

Chaos has intensified in the Gaza Strip since Israel completed its withdrawal of troops and settlers from the territory in September after 38 years of occupation.

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