By IBRAHIM BARZAK, Associated Press Writer
RAFAH, Gaza Strip - The leader of an al-Qaida-inspired group in the Gaza Strip blew himself up during a shootout Saturday with Hamas security forces, ending hours of violence sparked by a rebellious sermon at a mosque near the Egyptian border.
At least 24 people were killed in clashes with the shadowy group, which posed one of the biggest challenges to Hamas since the militant group seized power in Gaza two years ago.
The fighting broke out Friday when Hamas security men surrounded a mosque in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on the Egyptian border where about 100 members of Jund Ansar Allah, or the Soldiers of the Companions of God, were holed up.
Flares lit up the sky overnight as Hamas machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades slammed into the mosque. The militants inside returned fire with automatic weapons and grenades of their own.
The head of the radical Islamic group, Abdel-Latif Moussa, detonated an explosives vest he was wearing when fighting resumed after dawn Saturday, said Ihab Ghussein, a Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman.
"The so-called Moussa has committed suicide ... killing a mediator who had been sent to him to persuade him and his followers to hand themselves over to the government," Ghussein said.
He said the fighting ended later in the morning.
Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said a total of 24 people, including six Hamas police officers and an 11-year-old girl, were killed and 150 were wounded.
The group's Web site vowed revenge: "We swear to God to avenge the martyrs' blood and we will turn their women into widows."
Hamas also confirmed the death in the fighting of one of its high-level commanders, Abu Jibril Shimali, whom Israel said orchestrated the capture three years ago of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier who is still being held by Hamas.
The fighting appeared to confirm Hamas' iron rule in Gaza despite a punishing Israeli and Egyptian blockade that keeps all but basic humanitarian supplies from entering the impoverished seaside territory.
It also underscored the group's determination not to allow opponents with differing ideologies to gain a foothold in Gaza. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are together supposed to make up a future Palestinian state, but Hamas' bloody seizure of Gaza in 2007 created rival governments in the two territories -- located on opposite sides of Israel -- that are complicating Palestinian efforts to gain independence.
Jund Ansar Allah claims inspiration from al-Qaida's ultraconservative brand of Islam but no direct links have been confirmed.
The confrontation was triggered when the leader of the group defied Gaza's Hamas rulers by declaring in a Friday prayer sermon that the territory was an Islamic emirate.
Jund Ansar Allah and a number of other small radical groups seek to enforce an even stricter version of Islamic law in Gaza than that advocated by Hamas.
These groups are also upset that the Hamas regime has honored a cease-fire with Israel for the past seven months.
Hamas says it does not impose its religious views on others, but only seeks to set a pious example for people to follow.
Radical splinter groups such as Jund Ansar Allah call for a global jihad against the entire Western world, while Hamas maintains its struggle is only against the Israeli occupation.
"They are inspired by unbalanced ideologies and in the past they carried out a number of explosions targeting Internet cafes and wedding parties," said Ghussein, adding that the groups do not have any external ties.
The hard-line groups are perhaps the most serious opposition Hamas has faced since it seized control of Gaza and ousted its rivals in the Fatah movement in a five-day civil war in June 2007.
Hamas security blocked all roads to Rafah and declared the town a closed military zone. They said they have arrested about 40 members of the group so far.
Hamas is also investigating the launching of 11 homemade rockets from Gaza into Egypt on Friday. Only five of the rockets detonated, injuring a young girl, said Egyptian security forces.
Saeb Erekat, a senior peace negotiator with Israel and a member of the rival Fatah group in the West Bank, described the situation in Gaza as "alarming."
"Gaza is going down the drain in chaos and lawlessness," he told the AP.
Jund Ansar Allah first came to public attention in June after it claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to attack Israel from Gaza on horseback.
In July, three Muslim extremists from the group holed themselves up in a building in southern Gaza, surrendering to Hamas police only after a lengthy standoff.
It is unclear how many adherents Jund Ansar Allah or other similar extremist groups have in Gaza.