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U.S. Teacher Freed in West Bank

The Louisiana man reportedly was unharmed during his brief abduction.

October 12, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An American teacher was released late Wednesday by captors in the West Bank who had held him for a day.

Michael Phillips, 24, who teaches English in Palestinian refugee camps in Nablus, was unharmed, said Samah Atout, a manager for the nonprofit group for which the Louisiana resident has volunteered.

"He's totally OK, and he doesn't want to leave Nablus," Atout said by telephone shortly after Phillips' release.

Soon after being freed, Phillips told Reuters news service, "I'm fine, and I'm happy that this incident is over." He said he had not been mistreated.

The circumstances of Phillips' abduction and eventual release remained unclear.

Earlier Wednesday, a group calling itself Ansar al Sunna had faxed to Reuters a copy of the U.S. passport belonging to Phillips, plus his Israeli entry visa and a student identification, the news service reported.

Ansar al Sunna is not previously known in the West Bank, though a Sunni extremist group by that name has carried out killings in Iraq. Palestinian militants in Nablus said they were unfamiliar with any such local organization.

A masked spokesman for the group later demanded that Israel release imprisoned Palestinian women and minors. The spokesman, who spoke to reporters in the Gaza Strip, said Phillips was abducted to end "the crusader war on Islam."

Phillips has taught English around Nablus for three or four months as part of Project Hope, said Atout, a co-founder and acting manager of the Canadian nonprofit group.

Phillips is from Mandeville, La., north of New Orleans, and lives alone in Nablus, she said.

Co-workers became worried when he did not show up to teach a class Wednesday, Atout said.

The abduction came a month and a half after kidnappers in the Gaza Strip released two Fox News journalists -- an American correspondent and a cameraman from New Zealand -- after holding them for nearly two weeks.

The duration of the Gaza abduction and the manner in which it was carried out raised concerns that foreigners faced new kidnapping dangers by militants in the Palestinian territories.

The Fox journalists, correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig, said they were treated roughly by their masked captors, threatened with death and forced to convert to Islam before being released.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades claimed to have seized the pair, demanding the release of all Muslims held by the United States within 72 hours.

But the U.S. government rejected the demand, and the deadline passed a day before the men were freed.

Although there have been numerous abductions of foreigners in Gaza and the West Bank during the past year or so, typically the captives were set free quickly and said they were treated well.

The problem of abductions has led the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem to issue warnings to journalists and aid workers.

*

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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