Islamist Gunmen Order Closure of Gaza Strip Election Office

Previously unknown group: Poll is an Israeli, U.S. plot against Palestinians, cause Muslims strife.

Masked gunmen from a previously unknown Islamist group stormed into a Palestinian election office in the Gaza Strip on Monday and ordered it closed, saying upcoming parliamentary polls were un-Islamic, witnesses said.

The appearance of the faction, calling itself the Islamic Army, was an indicator of the rise of more puritanical forces in the already conservative territory from which Israel withdrew in September after 38 years of occupation.

The Central Elections Committee office in Rafah remained open despite the unspecified threats from the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and a pistol. Nobody was hurt.

In a leaflet dropped at the scene, the gunmen called January parliamentary elections a U.S. and Israeli plot to hurt Palestinians and cause strife among Muslims in the name of democracy, freedom and women's rights.

"We declare the closure of a center of corruption, in which immoral acts that contradict our religion have been practiced," the Islamic Army said in a statement.

The group gave no further indication as to its thinking.

But the demand marked it out as more puritanical than the Hamas militant faction, which plans to contest the election and expects to mount a real challenge to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's dominant Fatah movement.

Palestinian police rushed to the election office after it was stormed and stood guard to prevent any attacks.

The trouble also came as another sign of unrest in the territory, widely seen as a testing ground for statehood after Israel's withdrawal.

An election official said the Palestinian Authority would not respond to the threat.

?We will not close any of our offices and we are now contacting the Palestinian Authority," the official said after the gunmen left. He asked not to be named.