GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – A radical Islamist group hanged an Italian activist on Friday hours after kidnapping him in Gaza, Hamas said, as Rome denounced the "barbaric murder."
The pro-Palestinian activist was found hanged in a house north of Gaza City, the ruling Hamas government said.
"The government media office denounces the criminal kidnapping and murder of an Italian solidarity activist... who was found by security hanging in an abandoned house in northern Gaza," it said.
Hamas said two suspected kidnappers were arrested and security officials were looking for accomplices.
The pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) named the activist as 36-year-old member Vittorio Arrigoni, who had been living in the Gaza Strip for much of the past three years.
In a video posted on YouTube, the kidnappers said Arrigoni had been taken hostage in order to secure the release of an unspecified number of their members detained by Hamas security forces, including a jihadi leader called Sheikh Hisham al-Suedani.
The kidnappers, who identified themselves as belonging to The Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed bin Muslima, said they would execute Arrigoni if their demands were not met by 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Friday.
"If you don't respond quickly to our demands, within 30 hours from 11:00 am (0800 GMT) on April 14, we will execute this prisoner," they said.
It was unclear why they killed their hostage before the expiry of the deadline.
Hamas government spokesman Ihab al-Ghoussein branded the murder a "heinous crime which has nothing to do with our values, our religion, our customs and traditions" and said "the other members of the group will be hunted down and the law will be applied."
"When news of the kidnapping of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni became known security services went on general alert and the investigation has led to a member of the group who gave away the other members and showed the place where the activist was kept," he said in a statement read on television.
"The security services moved competently and quickly and found the body of the hostage who had been killed several hours earlier in an atrocious way according to a forensic doctor."
In Rome, the Italian foreign ministry denounced "in the strongest manner the act of vile and senseless violence committed by extremists who are indifferent to the value of human life."
The ministry expressed "its deep horror over the barbaric murder and its most sincere condolences to the family."
The West Bank-based Palestinian leadership had earlier called for Arrigoni's release, saying his kidnap "does not help the just cause of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, it harms it."
Arrigoni's kidnappers described him as a "journalist who came to our country for nothing but to corrupt people -- from Italy, the state of infidelity, whose armies are still in the Muslim countries."
But members of ISM, who expressed shock and horror over Arrigoni's murder, said he was the last person they could imagine being targeted in Gaza.
"He's very well-known, he lives among the people. He's just got this dynamic, humanitarian personality," said Huwaida Arraf, a co-founder of ISM.
"I even thought that whoever has him is going to see his humanity and just let him go so when I heard what happened to him I was totally shocked.
"Vit has repeatedly put his life in danger, put his life on the line in support of the Palestinians," she told AFP.
Arrigoni is the third member of the group to be killed in Gaza, following the March 2003 death of US activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer, and the January 2004 death of British activist Tom Hurndall, who died nine months after being shot by an Israeli soldier.
Arraf said ISM had never received threats from Palestinians, and the group was still discussing whether its members should leave Gaza after the murder.
There are five major Salafist groups in Gaza, who espouse a particularly austere form of Sunni Islam. Their religious observances and refusal to abide by various ceasefires have set them on a path of confrontation with Hamas.
In 2007, the Salafist Army of Islam claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston. Hamas severed ties with the group and freed Johnston after four months in captivity.