Militants in Gaza, Reuters
Militants in the Central Gaza Strip October 10, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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A pro-Palestinian group said Thursday that one of its activists, an Italian, has been kidnapped by Islamic militants in Gaza. It would be the first kidnapping of a foreigner since Hamas overran Gaza in 2007.

A video claiming to show the victim emerged from Gaza along with a demand by an extremist group to the Hamas government to release its leader, who was arrested last month. The group set a deadline of Friday afternoon, threatening to execute the hostage.

Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, said the abducted man in the video appeared to be one of its activists. She identified him as Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, from Italy.

Palestinian Authority  President Mahmoud Abbas released a statement Thursday, calling for Arrigoni's "immediate and unconditional release". The president added that the kidnapping was counterproductive and harmful to the Palestinian "just cause".

The video shows a man with a thick black blindfold and a large bruise on his face. Apparently seated, he is held in front of the camera by an unseen person.

In a message on the video, the extremist group that calls itself Monotheism and Holy War demanded that Hamas free its leader, arrested in early March, and two other members whose names had not been previously known.

Sheikh Abu Walid-al-Maqdasi, the leader of the group, was arrested in a crowded beachside neighborhood of Gaza City last month.

The Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was aware of the kidnapping, was in touch with Arrigoni's family and was taking steps to ensure his safety. "Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is in touch with diplomats in the country and is following the situation with great attention," the statement said.

The Hamas government said only that it was checking the accuracy of the reports.

Hamas itself is a fundamentalist Islamic group, but it faces challenges from even more extremist offshoots of Islam, including Walid-al-Maqdasi's group, that take inspiration from al-Qaida and the world jihad movement. Hamas has denied that al-Qaida has a presence in Gaza.

Kidnappings of foreigners were common before the Hamas takeover. Most of those abducted were foreign correspondents, including Alan Johnston of the BBC, who was abducted and held for 114 days before being freed in July 2007, just after Hamas overran Gaza, expelling forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Arrigoni has not been heard from in the past 24 hours," Arraf said. In the past, all kidnap victims have been released unharmed.

ISM operates in the West Bank and Gaza and is known for trying to prevent the Israeli military from carrying out its missions. Arraf said this activist has been going in and out of Gaza for more than two years. He was working with farmers and fishermen.

The ISM incident that got the most attention was the 2003 death of American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer in southern Gaza while trying to block its path.