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Leader says ranks of jihadi fighters in Gaza rising

Hamas official disputes claim

Gaza’s militant Salafi groups are suspected of bombing cafes and music stores and killing an Italian activist.

Adel Hana/Associated Press/File 2013

Gaza’s militant Salafi groups are suspected of bombing cafes and music stores and killing an Italian activist.

GAZA CITY — A leader of one of Gaza’s secretive jihadi groups says the movement inspired by Al Qaeda now has several thousand armed fighters in the seaside strip, posing a formidable threat to both Israel and the area’s Hamas rulers.

In an interview, Abu Bakir al-Ansari described a movement that is larger and better organized than is generally believed, with dozens of fighters now in Syria, and claimed his group killed an Italian activist three years ago.

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He said that Gaza’s Salafis have agreed with Hamas to observe a truce with Israel for the time being but that they are ready to fight at any time.

‘‘We have a deal with Hamas to abide by the truce as long as Israel abides,’’ Abu Bakir said. ‘‘But once it violates the truce, we fire our rockets without any consultation with Hamas.’’

In a separate development, Israel’s military said Sunday a cargo ship it intercepted in the Red Sea last week carried 40 rockets with a range of up to 100 miles. Israel has alleged the shipment was orchestrated by Iran and was intended for Islamic militants in Gaza, a claim denied by Iran and the rockets’ purported recipients.

An Egyptian security official said Sunday the rockets also might have been intended for militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza.

The interview with Abu Bakir gave a rare glimpse at the inner workings of Gaza’s Salafis, radical and ultraconservative Islamic groups that dream of turning Gaza into an Islamic caliphate.

The groups have created a headache for Hamas in recent years, accusing the militant group of being too soft on Israel and failing to adequately impose religious law on Gaza.

Salafi groups have been suspected in the bombings of Internet cafes and music stores, intimidation of Gaza’s small Christian community, the kidnapping of a BBC journalist in 2007, and the death of an Italian activist in 2011. Salafi groups are also believed to cooperate with militants in the neighboring Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to attack Egyptian and Israeli targets.

Gaza’s Salafis support Al Qaeda’s campaign of global jihad but are not believed to have direct links with the global terror network. In contrast, Hamas says its struggle is solely against Israel.

‘‘We are six groups and we have thousands of fighters, maybe 4,000,’’ Abu Bakir said.

A Hamas official said there are at most dozens of Salafi fighters, while an Israeli expert on Al Qaeda, Aviv Oreg, estimated there were up to 1,000.

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