Gaza militants kill Italian hostage

An August 29, 2008 file photo shows activist Vittorio Utmpio Arrigoni, from Italy, holding his passport during a protest against the Israeli siege on Gaza, in Gaza City. AP

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- An Italian activist kidnapped in Gaza by Palestinian extremists inspired by al Qaeda was killed by his captors and found hanged several hours after his abduction, Gaza's Hamas rulers said early Friday.

Hamas officials said police stormed an apartment in Gaza City where Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, was being held by members of a small Islamic group that had kidnapped him on Thursday. Arrigoni was dead and the apartment was otherwise empty, the officials said.

In Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry condemned what it called a "barbaric murder" and a "vile and irrational gesture of violence on the part of extremists indifferent to the value of a human life."

The group, calling itself Monotheism and Holy War, had released a video Thursday showing the kidnapped activist blindfolded and with cuts on his face, held in front of the camera by a fist gripping his hair. The group demanded that Hamas free its leader and two other members jailed by Hamas.

The abduction highlights challenges that Hamas — an Iran-backed group with a militant Islamist ideology that is considered a terror organization in the U.S., the European Union and elsewhere — has faced from smaller Islamic factions in Gaza. Some of these, including the one apparently behind Arrigoni's abduction, are inspired by al Qaeda and the world jihad movement.

Arrigoni had come to Gaza as a pro-Palestinian activist. According to a press release from his organization, the International Solidarity Movement, he had spent several years "monitoring human rights violations by Israel, supporting the Palestinian popular resistance against the Israeli occupation and disseminating information about the situation in Gaza to his home country of Italy."

Kidnappings of foreigners in Gaza took place with some regularity before Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. All were released unharmed. There had been no abductions since shortly after Hamas took power.

One of the leaders of the International Solidarity Movement, Huweida Arraf, condemned Arrigoni's "senseless killing."

"Vittorio was really loved in Gaza," she said. I didn't think there was even a 1 percent chance they would kill him. It was a complete shock."

The ISM has no immediate plans to pull its volunteers out of Gaza, she said.

Hamas said two people were arrested in another location in connection with the killing, and a third was being sought.

In a statement, the Hamas Interior Ministry said Arrigoni's captors killed him shortly after he was abducted midday Thursday. Salama Marouf, a Hamas government spokesman, said the killing was an act "against the humanity and against the custom and tradition of the Palestinian people."

Hamas' rivals from the Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, condemned the killing. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called Arrigoni's death a "despicable and ugly crime."

He attributed it to a "situation of chaos and lawlessness" in Gaza under Hamas rule, and urged the Islamic group to end its rift with the Palestinian Authority.

Journalists were not allowed to see the body in the morgue and could not independently confirm the cause of death given by Hamas. An Italian doctor was on his way from Israel to examine the body, a Hamas official said.

Arrigoni's organization, the International Solidarity Movement, operates in the West Bank and Gaza. Its volunteers protest against Israel and interfere with the operations of the Israeli military.

In 2003, an American ISM activist, Rachel Corrie, was crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer in a combat zone in southern Gaza while trying to block its path. A British activist with the group was fatally shot by an Israeli soldier in the same area that year.

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