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Detention of Palestinian Officer Draws Attention to Car-theft Ring

Israeli police this week detained a Palestinian police officer who was driving a stolen Israeli car, drawing attention to the growing phenomenon of car thefts here.

Monir Barghutti, 39, was detained after he stopped Wednesday for a routine check at a roadblock on the outskirts of the autonomous West Bank enclave of Jericho.

During the course of the check, Israeli security officials discovered that the car he was driving had been stolen from Tel Aviv two weeks earlier.

According to a senior Israeli police source, the car was stolen by a Palestinian who had been among those released recently from Israeli prisons as part of the implementation of the Palestinian self-rule accord.

The former prisoner, said the source, is known to have stolen a number of vehicles and smuggled them into Jericho.

Barghutti was dressed in civilian clothes at the time of his detention. A member of the security branch of the Palestinian police, he serves as a bodyguard for Yasser Abed Rabbo, the information minister in the Palestinian Authority.

According to Israeli police, the car was one of about 30 stolen vehicles being held by the Palestinian police at their Jericho base.

Israeli officials said they lodged a formal complaint with the Joint Liaison Office, a group of top Israeli and Palestinian officials overseeing implementation of the accord. They charged that the Palestinians have rejected all requests to return the stolen vehicles to their original Israeli owners.

Earlier this week, an Israeli television station aired footage of a low-level helicopter search for stolen Israeli vehicles spirited away to the West Bank.

The footage revealed a number of Israeli cars and commercial vehicles parked in rows at garages where workers were busy taking them apart for spare parts and repainting them for resale.

The Palestinian police commander in the Gaza Strip, Brig. Gen. Ghazi Jabali, has admitted that there are at least 5,000 stolen Israeli cars in the Gaza self-rule area.

But he said Israelis were selling their cars cheaply to Palestinians, then claiming they were stolen in order to collect insurance money.

Israeli police officials said they hope the Palestinian police will cooperate with them in the search for the stolen cars, instead of using the vehicles as a cheap supply source for their own car pools.

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