An al Qaeda-inspired group which briefly proclaimed "the birth of an Islamic emirate" in the Gaza Strip included a Syrian national who was believed to be the head of its military wing, Hamas confirmed yesterday after the group was overrun and its leader killed by police.

There have been repeated allegations from Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian leadership in the West Bank that al Qaeda affiliates, including foreign militants, are operating in Gaza with the knowledge of Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the coastal strip.

The confirmation by a Hamas interior ministry spokesman that a Syrian national of Palestinian descent, named as Khaled Banat but also known as Abu-Abdullah al-Suri, was among those killed in fighting in the southern city of Rafah between police and Jund Ansar Allah ("Warriors of the Companions of God") will renew that controversy.

Jund Ansar Allah's leader, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Moussa, also died in the fighting, which began on Saturday. He was apparently killed when gun battles began again yesterday.

The group promoted an ideology following Osama bin Laden, posting his statements as well as terrorist training videos on its website, and had called for Gaza to be ruled by strict sharia law.

It tried to launch an attack on the Nahal Oz border crossing into Israel this year, involving about 10 militants in trucks and on horseback, some wearing suicide vests.

The disclosure that a Syrian national was among the dead contradicts earlier claims by Ismail Haniyah, who heads Gaza's Hamas government, that there were no non-Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

Around 15 members of the group and six Hamas policemen were killed in the fighting around a mosque. A further 40 were arrested.

Jund Ansar Allah emerged last November when it released its first communique which sought to emulate al Qaeda, though no direct links have been proven. It is one of a number of jihadi groups to have appeared.

A Hamas spokesman accused the group of carrying out several recent attacks in the territory including bombings of a cafe, hairdressing salon and music shop.

Hamas sources said they were also behind the bombing of a wedding of members of the Dahlan family, a Fatah-affiliated clan, one of whose members, Mohammed Dahlan, was recently elected to the Fatah Central Committee. As well, the group had threatened to burn down the Strip's internet cafes and called for people on the beaches to dress more modestly.

Although Hamas claimed the group's leader was mentally unstable, Moussa had managed to attract scores of young men, some of whom had styled themselves after jihadi fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq, wearing their hair and beards long and even affecting the same dress.

The group's website, which shows videos of the preparations for the attack on Israel, much of it focusing on men on horseback or loading horses with mines, makes clear that Jund Ansar Allah allied itself closely with the ideals of global jihad as opposed to Hamas, which is more closely focused on Palestinian nationalism.

The emphasis on horseback operations is believed to signify a desire to emulate the warfare of the period of the Islamic conquests.

The attack on Israel was reportedly under the command of Abu-Abdullah al-Suri or "Abdullah the Syrian", the leader of the group's military wing.

Jund Ansar Allah is not the first hardline group allied to global jihad to emerge in the Gaza Strip. Neither is it the first time accusations have been levelled that al Qaeda allied groups have infiltrated the region.

In an interview last year with London-based newspaper al-Hayat, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President who heads the rival Fatah movement, accused Hamas of helping al Qaeda to enter the area.

"I can say without doubt that al Qaeda is present in the Palestinian territories and that this presence, especially in Gaza, is facilitated by Hamas," he said. Hamas denied the claims.

But what is not clear is why Hamas took so long to crack down on the group after the Nahal Oz attack. The Hamas authorities appear to have cracked down on other jihadi groups as they have emerged, including the Army of God, allied to the large Dogmoush clan, which was implicated in the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston in 2007.

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