LIANE HANSEN, host:
Two Fox News journalists who were abducted in Gaza two weeks ago are freed today. A previously unknown group had claimed responsibility and demanded the release of Muslim prisoners in U.S. jails. Also today, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan leaves for a Middle East tour that includes stops in Israel, Iran and Syria. He hopes to strengthen a two-week-old cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas, as well as speed up the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers.
NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Jerusalem.
Linda, first, what can you tell us about the release of the two journalists? Where are they now?
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
Steve Centanni, an American, and cameraman Olaf Wiig who's from New Zealand, were dropped off at a Gaza hotel. Their release came hours after senior Palestinian officials had said that they had guarantees that the men would be freed today, and also hours after a new video was released. There was one video last week, which is the first time they were heard from. There was another video today in which the two men said that they had converted to Islam and attacked Israeli aggression against Gaza. And then they were freed. It's not clear exactly what happened.
They were held by a group called the Holy Jihad Brigades. There had been some speculation by both Israeli and Palestinian officials that it was an al-Qaida group and not a local group because of differences between this kidnapping and previous ones that have happened in Gaza. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh today said that they had no connection with al-Qaida. It was not clear if the kidnappers had gotten anything in return for the two men's release.
HANSEN: Kofi Annan is heading to the Middle East to try shore up the cease-fire. Linda, what's known about the composition of the United Nations force? Who's going to be a part of it?
GRADSTEIN: The European Union announced that it would send a total of about 7,000 peacekeepers. Three thousand of them will come from Italy - that'll be the largest contingent - 2,000 from France. There is some controversy over whether soldiers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh - all three of these are countries with a Muslim majority that don't recognize Israel - will participate. They have said they want to participate. Kofi Annan had said he wants them. Israel is somewhat hesitant. Israel would like to see Turkey participate.
And Kofi Annan is coming. There have been some violations on both sides, both by Hezbollah guerillas and by Israeli troops in south Lebanon of the cease-fire, and he's trying to shore-up that cease-fire, get this thing moving as quickly as possible, because there's fear that, you know, there could start a new round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. And U.N. officials have said that they want this cease-fire to really be strengthened and these peacekeepers in place. They will join 15,000 Lebanese army troops, some of whom have already been deployed in south Lebanon.
Also today, there was an Israeli incursion into Gaza. Several dozen tanks crossed the border and in two separate air strikes, two Hamas gunmen were killed. Also, five Palestinians were wounded, including two from Reuters. They said that their car was clearly marked with television. The Israeli army said they didn't see the television markers. The Foreign Press Association has protested that.
HANSEN: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem. Linda, thank you very much.
GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Liane.
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