Image: Palestinian Hamas security personnel carry the coffin of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni
Majed Hamdan  /  AP
Palestinian Hamas security personnel carry the coffin of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, during a symbolic military funeral in Gaza City, Monday.
By
updated 4/19/2011 1:41:56 PM ET 2011-04-19T17:41:56

An al-Qaida inspired militant implicated in the death of an Italian activist killed himself and an associate as Hamas security forces stormed his Gaza hideout on Tuesday.

The surviving member of the militant trio believed to have kidnapped and killed pro-Palestinian activist Vittorio Arrigoni was arrested by Hamas forces who surrounded and captured the house after a fierce firefight, said Hamas security spokesman Ihab Ghussein.

As Hamas forces closed in, the group's ringleader, Abdel-Rahman Mohammad Breizat, a Jordanian, threw grenades at his two accomplices and then shot himself rather than be taken alive.

Hamas forces had surrounded the hideout earlier in the day as part of a manhunt for the killers of Arrigoni — an activist living in Gaza since 2008 helping local Palestinians. The 36-year-old's body was found on Friday, a day after he was kidnapped and after a video showing him beaten and blindfolded surfaced online.

Three members of the Hamas police force were wounded in the gunfight along with a girl, caught in the crossfire as she tried to flee to her house nearby.

Several relatives of the gunmen as well as a known Salafist preacher arrived at the scene to plead with the suspects to surrender. After a few hours, Hamas said mediation attempts collapsed and shooting erupted anew. Hamas then banned media from reporting and ordered them away from the scene.

In the video of Arrigoni, a group identifying itself as "Monotheism and Holy War" demanded the release of two of its leaders, held by Hamas, in exchange for the hostage.

Hamas said Arrigoni was strangled, but it has not allowed an independent expert to see the body.

The case was the first kidnap-slaying of a foreigner in the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power in the tiny Mediterranean coastal territory in 2007. It highlighted the challenge that the Iran-backed Hamas — a group with a militant Islamist ideology that is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and others — faces from smaller more extremist factions in Gaza that see it as too pragmatic.

Image: Palestinian women hold a banner with the picture of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni
Nasser Ishtayeh  /  AP
Palestinian women hold a banner with the picture of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni during a recent protest in the West Bank city of Nablus.

A Hamas official said the suspects were members of a small extremist Islamic group inspired by al-Qaida. Breizat is believed to have sneaked into Gaza last year.

Breizat's mother earlier told The Associated Press from Amman, Jordan, that her son was an observant Muslim unfairly accused of links to militant groups in his native country. She said he had "disappeared suddenly" but the family later heard from him that he went to Gaza.

"He's not a terrorist," said Umm Maath, identifying herself by her eldest son's name.

Arrigoni was given a symbolic funeral on Monday in Gaza, after which his body was taken to neighboring Egypt, and then to Italy for burial.

Radical and ultraconservative Islamic groups in Gaza that belong to the ultraconservative Salafi sect have created a headache for the strip's militant Hamas rulers. Some groups are suspected of being behind a series of bombings of Internet cafes and music stores in Gaza, which they view as contrary to their perception of strict Islamic values.

In 2007, Salafi militants from the "Army of Islam" kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston and held him for a few months before he was freed.

The same group was involved in the abduction of Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid in 2006.

Hamas still holds Schalit, demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted of murdering Israeli civilians, in exchange for his freedom. Hamas have banned the Red Cross from seeing Schalit and little is known about his condition.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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