msnbc.com news services
updated 7/30/2004 7:49:16 PM ET 2004-07-30T23:49:16

Palestinian gunmen late Friday abducted three foreign church workers, including one American, Palestinian security officials said. They were released hours later.

The three workers — an American, a Briton and an Irishman — had been working on an academic project at a Nablus university. Officials said five unidentified armed men took the three around midnight as they returned to a house where they have been living.

All three were later released after pressure from both Palestinian authorities and militant organizations. Five foreign women accompanying the men were left unharmed. They refused to speak to reporters.

The officials said the hostages apparently were taken to the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. No reason for the abduction was immediately given.

Palestinian sources said police had begun a citywide search and were trying to determine who had taken the three men, who were not immediately identified.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which is affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said the kidnappers could belong to a splinter group of Al Aqsa. A representative said the group was helping authorities in the search for the hostages, and the kidnappers were believed to be from an Al Aqsa splinter group.

The abduction was the latest in a spate of kidnappings that began earlier this month with the brief abduction in the Gaza Strip of a police chief and four French aid workers. Their captors had demanded anti-corruption reforms in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

Nablus has been increasingly plagued by lawlessness by armed gangs. The most recent abduction took place in an upscale part of Nablus, where restaurants stay open late into the night and where young people often meet.

The volunteers came to Nablus more than three weeks ago, apparently for missionary activities, the officials said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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