By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Security personnel found the body of an Italian peace campaigner who was killed and left in an abandoned house in the Gaza Strip following his abduction by militants, a Hamas official said on Friday.
Two men were arrested and others were being sought in the killing of Vittorio Arrigoni, the security official added.
A Jihadist Salafi group in the Gaza Strip aligned with al Qaeda had threatened on Thursday to execute Arrigoni by 1700 local time (3 p.m. British time) unless their leader, arrested by Hamas last month, was freed.
"A security force entered a house and they found the Italian man's body, he is dead," the official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters from the scene.
Arrigoni, a pacifist and blogger, had lived in the Gaza Strip since August 2008. He arrived on a boat bringing humanitarian supplies that Israel, which enforces a blockade on the tiny coastal territory, allowed into Gaza port.
Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the coastal enclave, vehemently opposes Salafists who espouse an extreme form of Islam and appear to be attracting recruits, including from Hamas, among those unhappy with a failure to impose Islamic law and with Hamas's policy of restraint against Israel.
The Salafists also have attacked Internet cafes and want Christians expelled.
Ehab Al-Ghssain, a spokesman for the Hamas interior ministry, told a news conference the arrest and questioning of one of the group had led to the discovery of where Arrigoni was being held, but when forces arrived at the scene he was dead.
"The forces moved quickly and wisely to the place but found that the abducted man was killed hours earlier in an ugly manner, according to the pathologist," Ghssain said.
The security official at the scene said Arrigoni had been strangled.
Ghssain said the abductors recently had rented the house where the body was found and had used someone else's car to try to conceal their identities. He added that Arrigoni's fate had been sealed from the outset.
"Their intention from the very beginning was to kill their victim, because the crime took place after a short period of his abduction," he said.
In a YouTube clip posted earlier by his abductors, Arrigoni was shown blindfolded with blood around his right eye and a hand could be seen pulling his head up by his hair to face the camera.
The accompanying Arabic text said: "The Italian hostage entered our land only to spread corruption." It described Italy as "the infidel state."
Arrigoni was the first foreign national to be abducted in the Gaza Strip since BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was held for 114 days by an al Qaeda-inspired group named the Army of Islam. He was released in 2007.
Ghssain said the killing could jeopardise more solidarity missions going to the Gaza Strip such as flotillas that have tried to run an Israeli naval blockade on the territory.
He said those responsible for the killing had served Israel's intentions by "trying to terrorise the people who support the Palestinian people in Gaza."
The Palestinian People Party, a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation that is headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the killing and demanded the killers face the "utmost punishment."
"This crime does not reflect the morals or the traditions of the Palestinian people," the group said in a statement.
The Hamas Islamist group that controls Gaza took power there by force in 2007 when it ousted Abbas's Fatah faction that holds sway in the West Bank. The Islamist group also rejects Abbas's willingness to discuss a peace deal with Israel and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Michael Roddy)