"He's released and unharmed," the official said in Gaza on Saturday, but declined further comment.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Al-Ahrar Brigades had said it had kidnapped Egyptian diplomat Hossam al-Musseli and demanded that Cairo release all Palestinian prisoners.

"If Egypt does not heed this demand, it will bear sole responsibility for the tragic consequences," according to a statement from the kidnappers sent to Aljazeera on Friday.

Masked armed men snatched al-Musseli on Thursday in Gaza City, an area where kidnappings of foreigners are frequent but captives are usually released unharmed.

The abduction is an embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority which counts Egypt as one of its principal allies.

Police sources said the diplomat was heading towards his office in the al-Rimal neighbourhood of Gaza City when the masked men surrounded his car and forced him into another vehicle.

The kidnappers then took off on a coastal road heading towards the southern Gaza Strip.

Military adviser

Egyptian officials later said al-Musseli worked as a military adviser in the diplomatic mission.

An Egyptian delegation has been in the Gaza Strip for several months with the aim of helping the Palestinian Authority to reorganise its security forces after Israel's withdrawal from the territory last September.

Italian Alessandro Bernardini (C)
was abducted last month

About 30 Egyptian military instructors who had helped to train Palestinian security forces left the Gaza Strip last week at the end of their mission.

Palestinian armed men have kidnapped about 20 foreigners briefly in the past, often to press demands for jobs, but never have they abducted an Egyptian.

The kidnappings have been largely concentrated in the southern Gaza Strip, close to the border with Egypt.

Among those who were kidnapped last month were a British aid worker and her parents as well as an Italian member of a delegation who had travelled to the territory in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Security failure

No diplomats had been kidnapped before Thursday's incident, although three American contractors working as security guards for the US embassy in Tel Aviv were killed in October 2003 in an attack on a US diplomatic convoy in Gaza.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has failed to make good on repeated promises to address the security chaos in the Palestinian territories, especially in Gaza where armed men from a plethora of resistance factions often operate above the law.

Abbas's Fatah faction was heavily defeated in a general election by Hamas amid widespread anger over the deteriorating security situation.