Hamas' interior ministry has announced that the leader of an al-Qaeda-inspired group in the Gaza Strip blew himself up during a shootout Saturday with Hamas security forces.
The fighting erupted Friday when Hamas forces surrounded a mosque in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on the Egypt border where about 100 members of Jund Ansar Allah, or the Soldiers of the Companions of God, were holed up.
The head of the radical Islamic group, Abdel-Latif Moussa, detonated an explosives vest he was wearing when fighting resumed after dawn Saturday, said Ihab Ghussein, a Hamas interior ministry spokesman.
"The so-called Moussa has committed suicide ... killing a mediator who had been sent to him to persuade him and his followers to hand themselves over to the government," Ghussein said. He said the fighting ended later in the morning.
Hamas also confirmed the death in the fighting of one of its high-level commanders, Abu Jibril Shimali, whom Israel said orchestrated the capture of Sergeant Gilad Shalit.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said a total of 24 people, including six Hamas police officers and an 11-year-old girl, were killed and 150 were wounded.
The confrontation was triggered when the leader of the group defied Gaza's Hamas rulers by declaring in a Friday prayer sermon that the territory was an Islamic emirate.
Jund Ansar Allah and a number of other small, shadowy radical groups seek to enforce an even stricter version of Islamic law in Gaza than that advocated by Hamas.
These groups are also upset that the Hamas regime has honored a cease-fire with Israel for the past seven months.
Hamas says it does not impose its religious views on others, but only seeks to set a pious example for people to follow, while these splinter call for a more forceful imposition of Islamic law.
The groups also call for a wider global jihad against the entire Western world while Hamas maintains the struggle is only against the Israeli occupation.
40 group members arrested
The hardline groups are perhaps the most serious opposition Hamas has faced since it seized control of Gaza and ousted its rivals in the Fatah movement in a five-day, bloody civil war in June 2007.
Hamas security blocked all roads to Rafah and declared the town a closed military zone. They said they have arrested about 40 members of the group so far.
Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu said Friday that the Hamas leadership was engaging in an operation against "outlaws" and called on Moussa's followers to surrender to the authorities.
Hamas has also anounced it is investigating the launching of 11 homemade rockets from Gaza into Egypt on Friday. Only five of the rockets detonated, injuring a young girl, said Egyptian security forces.
Saeb Erekat, a senior peace negotiator with Israel and a member of the rival Fatah group in the West Bank, described the situation in Gaza as "alarming."
"Gaza is going down the drain in chaos and lawlessness," he told the Associated Press.
Jund Ansar Allah first came to public attention in June after it claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to attack Israel from Gaza on horseback.
The group claims inspiration from al-Qaeda, but no ties have been confirmed.
In July, three Muslim extremists from the group holed themselves up in a building in southern Gaza, surrendering to Hamas police only after a lengthy standoff.
It is unclear how many adherents Jund Ansar Allah or other similar extremist groups have in Gaza.