Hamas security forces killed the leader of an al-Qaida-inspired group in the Gaza Strip today in a shootout that claimed the lives of 22 people, Hamas said.
The fighting erupted yesterday 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, was killed when fighting resumed after dawn today, Ihab Ghussein, a Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman said.
“The operation is over and what is going on right now is searching and clearing the area,” he said, adding that it was not clear whether Moussa died from an explosives belt he was wearing or from Hamas gunfire.
Dr Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry official in Gaza said a total of 22 people, including six Hamas police officers and an 11-year-old girl, were killed in the violence that also wounded 150.
The group’s website vowed vengeance, meanwhile, saying: “We swear to God to avenge the martyrs’ blood and we will turn their women to widows”.
Hamas also confirmed the death in the fighting of one of its high level commanders, Abu-Jibril Shimali, whom Israel said was behind the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier three years ago in a cross border raid.
Jund Ansar Allah claims inspiration from al-Qaida’s ultraconservative brand of Islam but no direct links have been confirmed.
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 honoured a ceasefire with Israel for the past seven months.
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.
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.