Italian activist pays price of Hamas-Salafists frictions
A Salafist group of radical Islamists killed an Italian activist after kidnapping him in Gaza, a Hamas security official said Friday.
"The Italian was killed by suffocation and his body was found in a street of the city of Gaza," a spokesman for the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip said.
Two suspected kidnappers were arrested and security officials are looking for accomplices.
Foreign aid workers in the enclave earlier named the man as Vittorio Arrigoni and said he was an activist with a pro-Palestinian group called the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who was also working as a journalist and writer.
In a video posted on YouTube, the Salafist group said it had taken him hostage in order to secure the release of an unspecified number of their members who had been arrested by the security forces in the Gaza Strip.
It said it would execute him if their demands were not met by 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Friday.
"We kidnapped the Italian prisoner Vittorio and we call on the Haniya government ... to release all our prisoners," it said, referring to Hamas Premier Ismail Haniya and naming an imprisoned jihadi leader called Sheikh Hisham al-Suedani.
"If you don't respond quickly to our demands, within 30 hours from 11:00 am (0800 GMT) on April 14, we will execute this prisoner," it said.
Hamas government spokesman Ihab al-Ghoussein branded the murder a "heinous crime which has nothing to do with our values, our religion, our customs and traditions" and said "the other members of the group will be hunted down and the law will be applied".
"When news of the kidnapping of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni became known security services went on general alert and the investigation has led to a member of the group who gave away the other members and showed the place where the activist was kept," he added on television reading a statement.
"The security services moved competently and quickly and found the body of the hostage who had been killed several hours earlier in an atrocious way according to a forensic doctor," Ghoussein said.
The West Bank-based Palestinian leadership earlier called for the "immediate and unconditional release of this foreign activist who is working in support of the Palestinian cause and people".
"This action does not help the just cause of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, it harms it," a statement said.
The kidnappers identified themselves in the video as belonging to a previously unknown group called The Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed bin Muslima.
The group described Arrigoni as a "journalist who came to our country for nothing but to corrupt people -- from Italy, the state of infidelity, whose armies are still in the Muslim countries".
In Rome, the Italian foreign ministry said it had been informed by its consulate in Jerusalem of Arrigoni's kidnap and had "already taken the opportune steps to intervene to protect him".
A statement added that Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was following the matter closely and that a crisis unit at the ministry was in contact with Arrigoni's family.
There are five major Salafist groups in Gaza, all of which espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam that seeks a return to practices that were common in the early days of the faith.
Their religious observances and refusal to abide by various ceasefires have set them on a path of confrontation with Hamas.
Though small in numbers, the groups have had a disproportionate impact.
By launching hundreds of crude rockets from the coastal enclave into the Jewish state, they have attracted the wrath of both Israel and Hamas.
The history of bad blood between Hamas and the Salafists goes back to 2007, when a Salafist group called the Army of Islam claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston.
Hamas severed ties with the group and helped free Johnston after four months in captivity.
Tensions boiled over in August 2009, when Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Partisans of God) announced the creation of an Islamist "emirate" in Gaza, during a sermon at a mosque in the southern city of Rafah.
That prompted a furious response from Hamas, whose forces stormed the mosque, prompting clashes which left 24 people dead.