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The body of kidnapped Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni was discovered in an abandoned house just hours after a radical Islamist group announced that it was holding the pro-Palestinian advocate in exchange for the release of its leader, Gaza officials said Friday.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, friends of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni gathered Friday to take part in a demonstration protesting his killing. (Alessio Romenzi / AFP/Getty Images)
The slaying drew immediate expressions of shock and condemnation from Palestinian leaders, Gaza Strip residents and Arrigoni’s colleagues, who said the 36-year-old had come to the Gaza Strip in 2008 with the advocacy group International Solidarity Movement to help Palestinians in the impoverished coastal territory.

It was the first abduction of a Westerner in Gaza since 2007 and, human rights officials said, the only instance of such a kidnapping victim being slain.

On Thursday, a small Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda posted a video of a bloodied, blindfolded Arrigoni. The Tawhid and Jihad group set a late Friday deadline for the release of its leader, who had been arrested by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007.

On Friday, the group retracted its claim of responsibility but defended the killing, saying it was the result of Hamas policies.

Hamas police officials said they discovered Arrigoni’s body in Gaza City long before the deadline. They also said they had arrested two suspects.

“This crime will not remain unpunished,” said senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. In a statement, the Hamas Interior Ministry condemned the slaying as a “heinous crime that does not reflect our values.”

Hamas, which itself is labeled a terrorist group by Israel and the United States, is increasingly under pressure from smaller, more extreme groups that complain it has become too moderate in its battle against Israel. During the last 18 months, Hamas police have arrested several members of such rival groups and killed one top spiritual leader during an armed clash in August 2009.

Zahar suggested that Israel might be responsible for the slaying in an attempt to scare off international activists from coming and working in Gaza, though he offered no evidence. Next month, he noted, a protest ship of international activists is expected to attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade around Gaza.

Since arriving in Gaza in 2009, Arrigoni had been involved in various projects, his friends said, including assisting Gaza fishermen. Bassam Massri, a friend, said he was saddened by the possibility that Arrigoni was killed at the hands of the people he was trying to help.

“I’m ashamed and every Palestinian should feel ashamed too,” Massri said. “We are sorry, Arrigoni. We let you down. You are a brave man.” LAT

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