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Body of abducted Italian activist found in Gaza City

April 15, 2011 3:05 A.M. (Updated: April 21, 2011 1:53 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- An abducted Italian solidarity activist was found dead Friday hours after being kidnapped by radical Islamists.

Local sources told Ma'an that Vittorio Arrigoni's body was found in an empty home northwest of Gaza City in the Mashrou Amer area.

The government in Gaza "condemns the heinous crime that does not reflect our values, our religion or our customs and traditions," a statement from the interior ministry said vowing to hunt down those responsible.

In a statement, government press office said Arrigoni "was found by security hanging in an abandoned house in northern Gaza."

"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," Hamas government spokesman Ihab al-Ghoussein said.

"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," he said in a statement read on television.

Salafist radicals in Gaza were suspected in the kidnapping of Arrigoni, an activist for the International Solidarity Movement, last seen alive in a video posted online Thursday.

"We kidnapped the Italian prisoner Vittorio and we call on the Haniyeh government ... to release all our prisoners," it said, referring to Hamas Premier Ismail Haniyeh and naming an imprisoned jihadi leader called Sheikh Hisham Sa'idni.

In March, sources close to the Salafists told Ma'an that Su'idani, 50, was arrested from his home in the Shati refugee camp.

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".

The Salafi Jihadi group had threatened to kill Arrigoni unless Hamas released Salafist prisoners by Friday evening. Before the deadline passed, however, Hamas said his body was found.

Huwaida Arraf, a co-founder of the ISM, confirmed that Vittorio's body was identified by staff in Gaza City. "It's unbelievable," she said. "He was more Palestinian than the criminals that killed him."

Arraf added: "He's very well-known, he lives among the people. He's just got this dynamic, humanitarian personality.

"I even thought that whoever has him is going to see his humanity and just let him go so when I heard what happened to him I was totally shocked."

Two suspected kidnappers were arrested and security forces are looking for accomplices, officials 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.

Before the death was announced, Palestinians had planned to meet in Gaza City's central Jundi square on Friday at 4 p.m. The protest was to demand Arrigoni's release, the Gaza Youth Breaks Out group said.

Arrigoni held honorary citizenship for his work in the occupied territories, "a hero of Palestine," said Khalil Shaheen of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in an ISM statement.

Rome on Friday denounced "in the strongest manner the act of vile and senseless violence committed by extremists who are indifferent to the value of human life", a statement said.

The foreign ministry expressed "its deep horror over the barbaric murder and its most sincere condolences to the family."

Hamas security forces have in recent years taken a hard line against Salafists in Gaza.

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 Israel, 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.

AFP contributed to this report

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