VIDEO - The body of an Italian pro-Palestinian activist abducted Thursday by Islamic extremists has been found hanged in a Gaza City house, after a clash between Hamas police and the abductors, Hamas officials said in the early hours of Friday morning.
The officials said Hamas police stormed an apartment in Gaza City belonging to a member of the extremist group that released a video of the activist. Hamas police said they found the man dead from an apparent hanging. Security officials added that two men were arrested and others were being sought in the killing.
The International Solidarity Movement had identified the kidnapped activist as Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, a member from Italy. An Italian doctor was reportedly on his way from Israel to examine the body, a Hamas official said.
Arrigoni, a pacifist and blogger, had lived in the Gaza Strip for some time. Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, identified him as one of the group's members. Arrigoni had not been heard from in the past 24 hours, Arraf said.
Arrigoni in the Gaza Strip (Photo: AP)
Italy's government condemned Arrigoni's kidnapping and "brutal murder" on Friday.
The Italian foreign ministry "denounces 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 ministry expressed "its deep horror over the barbaric murder and its most sincere condolences to the family."
Arrigoni's abduction was first kidnapping of a foreigner since Hamas overran Gaza in
2007. In the past, all foreign kidnap victims in Gaza had been released unharmed.
According to accounts, Gaza police were surrounding the small house where the clash took place. A police officer said the body was inside, adding that two people were arrested in another location in connection with the abduction, and a third was being sought.
A video released earlier Thursday night showed a man with a thick black blindfold and a large bruise on his face. Apparently seated, he was held in front of the camera by an unseen person.
Video posted by kidnappers
In a message on the video, an extremist group calling itself "Monotheism and Holy War" demanded that Hamas free
its leader, Sheikh Abu Walid-al-Maqdasi, who was arrested in early March; and two other members whose names had not been previously known. The Hamas government had no immediate reaction.
Early Friday, the group – beleaived to be affiliated with al-Qaeda – posted a statement on its website denying responsibility for the abduction.
Before the body was found, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was aware of the kidnapping, was in touch with Arrigoni's family and was taking steps to ensure his safety. "Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is in touch with diplomats in the country and is following the situation with great attention," the statement said.
Hamas' Interior Ministry called a special press conference following the recovery of the Italian peace activist's body in Gaza.
The ministry denounced the act: "This is a heinous murder which does not represent our religion, values and costume," it said in a statement, adding
the act "harms the Palestinian people's goals." Hamas police have launched a full inquiry in the case.
Hamas itself is a fundamentalist Islamic group, but it faces challenges from even more extremist offshoots of Islam, including Walid-al-Maqdasi's group, that take inspiration from al-Qaida and the world jihad movement. Hamas has denied that al-Qaeda has a presence in Gaza.
Kidnappings of foreigners were common before the Hamas takeover. Most of those abducted were foreign correspondents, including Alan Johnston of the BBC,
who was abducted and held for 114 days before being freed in July 2007, just after Hamas overran Gaza, expelling forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
ISM operates in the West Bank and Gaza and is known for trying to prevent the Israeli military from carrying out its missions. Arraf said this activist has been going in and out of Gaza for more than two years. He was working with farmers and fishermen.
The ISM incident that got the most attention was the 2003 death of American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer in southern Gaza while trying to block its path.
Since his murder, online videos of an interview Arrigoni held earlier this year have surfaced on the internet.
"I arrived in Gaza on August 23, 2009 on a boat of the Free Gaza Movement with about 40 activists from 17 different countries," he said. "We arrived and broke a siege lasting since 1967. I remember this day as one of the happiest in my life."
Arrigoni said he came from a family of partisans. "My grandfathers died fighting an occupation, another occupation, the Nazi-fascist occupation in Italy. For this reason, my DNA, my blood probably has parts pushing me to fight for freedom and human rights."
Arrigoni said that there are people who are willing to devote their lives to support the people in Gaza despite their governments' complaisance and "cooperation with the Zionist-Israeli regime."
He said that he and his friends came to Gaza to "face the snipers as a human shield" and did what the UN should be doing to enforce international law.
Elior Levy, Reuters and AFP contributed to this report