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Gaza police up stakes for arrests in activist murder

April 17, 2011 4:17 P.M. (Updated: April 19, 2011 1:56 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Chief of police in the Gaza Strip Abu Ubayda Al-Jarrah announced Sunday a reward to any security officer who helped locate the killers of an Italian solidarity activist found dead two days earlier.

"All security officers who help reveal and arrest the killers ... will be rewarded," Abu Ubayda said in a statement, the day after President Mahmoud Abbas declared that those behind the murder would be charged with treason.

The statement was made despite the arrest and questioning of four men currently being interrogated over the murder of Italian reporter and activist Vittorio Arrigoni, who was found hanged early Friday morning.

Arrigoni had been abducted and his kidnappers posted a ransom video online Thursday, identifying themselves as a Salafist group. They said the activist would be executed unless Hamas officials in Gaza freed a number of Salafists from prison within 30 hours. Twelve hours ahead of the deadline, the activist was found hanged.

On Sunday evening, Hamas foreign affairs and planning minister Mohammed Awad told reporters that Arrigoni's body would be moved to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on Monday after a funeral in Gaza.

"We're waiting for his friends and relatives to arrive in Gaza. Some are already here but there are others we are waiting for, and then there will be a state funeral," Awad said.

"We expect afterward that his body will be taken to the Rafah crossing and then on to Cairo, according to the wishes of his family."

Earlier in the week, Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had said that the murder "does not reflect the values, morals, or the religion of the Palestinian people. This is an unprecedented case that won't be repeated," and called for a criminal investigation into the matter.

Tensions between Salafist groups and Hamas

In the video, the kidnappers said they were part of a previously unknown Salafi group Sarayat As-Sahabi Al-Humam Muhammad bin Muslima (the Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed bin Muslima). Larger Salafist groups have said they had nothing to do with the abduction or murder, which was harshly condemned.

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 recent history of bad blood between Hamas and the Salafists picked up in 2007, when a Salafist group called the Army of Islam (Jaish Al-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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