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Palestinian gunmen kidnap AP photographer

JERUSALEM &

Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip ambushed an Associated Press photographer as he left his apartment Tuesday, forcing him into a car and speeding away &

the latest in a string of kidnappings of foreigners in the chaotic area.

Palestinian leaders condemned the abduction and promised to work for the release of Emilio Morenatti. But no one claimed responsibility, and authorities offered no leads on his whereabouts.

Morenatti, a 37-year-old Spaniard, was kidnapped as he headed out of his Gaza City apartment for an AP car, where Majed Hamdan, an AP driver and translator, was waiting. Hamdan said four gunmen grabbed his keys and cell phone and told him to turn away, pressing a gun to his head and threatening to harm him if he moved.

They abducted Morenatti, shoving him into a white Volkswagen Golf and driving off, Hamdan said.

In the past two years, militants have frequently kidnapped foreigners as bargaining chips to get relatives released from Palestinian prisons, secure government jobs or settle personal scores. In most cases, the kidnappings were brief and the hostages released unharmed.

But recently, the kidnappers have changed tactics. Two Fox News journalists kidnapped in August were held for two weeks, much longer than previous cases. The men also suffered physical and mental abuse in captivity.

An unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades claimed responsibility for the August abduction, and its demand for the release of Muslim prisoners held by the U.S. raised fears that foreign extremists, perhaps al-Qaida, had infiltrated Gaza. But Palestinian security officials said the name was a front for local militants.

In New York, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Curley said the company was doing everything possible to find Morenatti.

"The Associated Press is working to find out just what happened to Emilio. We are in contact with Palestinian officials and leaders to learn more, and to try and obtain his release. Our main concern now, however, is for his safety," Curley said.

"Emilio has spent his career representing the values that AP stands for &

truthful, accurate journalism that tells all sides of the story. It is a sad development when the men and women the world rely on to bring them objective news are subject to such dangers. No cause or motive can justify such senseless action," Curley said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told the AP he had instructed his interior minister, who oversees most security forces in Gaza, to solve the case.

"The government is exerting its maximum efforts to guarantee the safe return of Emilio to his family and his colleagues in the agency," Haniyeh said after meeting with AP representatives. He said the kidnapping "contradicts Palestinian morals and heritage" and expressed solidarity with Morenatti's family and AP journalists in Gaza.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, called on the kidnappers "not to harm Emilio and release him immediately."

Saeb Erekat, a confidant of President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah Party, also condemned the kidnapping, saying it "harms Palestinian interests."

"President Abbas is personally following the matter. We have been in touch with the government, the Presidential Guards and other security branches in order to acquire his immediate release," Erekat said.

Later Tuesday, Abbas spoke to Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos and assured him he was doing everything in his power to get Morenatti released quickly, Erekat said. Spanish diplomats confirmed that Moratinos, a former EU Mideast envoy, was personally involved in the case.

The Tel Aviv-based Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign journalists covering Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, called for Morenatti's prompt release.

"There can be no justification whatsoever for kidnapping journalists working to cover events inside Gaza, or anywhere else in the Palestinian territories," the Foreign Press Association said in a statement.

In the U.S., the media advocacy groups Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the kidnapping and called for Morenatti's release.

"We're dismayed that journalists have become pawns of Palestinian groups seeking to exploit them for political purposes," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "These blatant attacks on journalists will have a chilling effect on their ability to do their work and will ultimately deprive the world of information about this critically important story."

Morenatti, from Jerez, Spain, has been based in Jerusalem since April 2005, handling periodic assignments in Gaza and the West Bank. He has been in Gaza since Sunday.

Morenatti began working for the AP in April 2004, and spent a year in Afghanistan covering the conflict there. He also covered the war in Lebanon and the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany.

In 1992, Morenatti began work as a photographer with EFE, the Spanish news agency, Spain.