updated 2/11/2006 1:10:32 AM ET 2006-02-11T06:10:32

An Egyptian diplomat abducted at gunpoint in the Gaza Strip was released early Saturday, and his kidnappers said they had freed him as a “goodwill gesture.”

Palestinian police said they picked up Hussam Almousaly at a mosque in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood overnight. Egyptian diplomatic officials confirmed Almousaly was unharmed and back at his home in Gaza City.

The Al Ahrar Brigades, the previously unknown Palestinian group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, reiterated its call for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Egypt and said it was not connected to the Palestinian Authority or any of the major Palestinian militant groups.

The group, whose name means The Liberated People, says Palestinians jailed in Egypt face torture and humiliating conditions.

The Al-Jazeera satellite network early quoted the group as saying in a statement early Saturday that it had freed Almousaly as a “goodwill gesture.”

Major militant groups in Gaza, including those who have carried out other kidnappings in recent months, have condemned Thursday’s abduction.

Egyptian security officials in Sinai, which borders Gaza, confirmed more than 80 Palestinians are in jail for weapons smuggling or illegally entering the country. The Egyptian diplomats would not say whether they had consented to the kidnappers’ demands.

They said the Egyptian Foreign Ministry would release a formal statement later Saturday. The officials could not be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Lawless environment
The diplomat was kidnapped near the Egyptian mission in Gaza City on Thursday after two masked gunmen shot out the tires of his car.

Late Friday, a small group of Palestinian families gathered outside the Egyptian mission, lighting candles and waving Egyptian flags in a show of support for the diplomat.

The abduction underscored the lawlessness plaguing Gaza in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from the area last September.

Egypt, a key ally of the Palestinians, has been trying to broker the formation of a new Palestinian government following Hamas’ victory in legislative elections last month.

The Egyptian was the first diplomat seized amid a recent spate of kidnappings, and the abduction was the most serious attack on diplomats in the Palestinian areas since three American security guards were killed when a U.S. diplomatic convoy was hit by a bomb in October 2003.

Many recent Gaza kidnappings have been carried out by small groups seeking the release of relatives from jail, jobs or other personal favors.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has come under criticism for giving in to some of the demands, with critics saying the tactic has encouraged more unrest.

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