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Two killed on Gaza-Egypt border in confrontation between Hamas and rival Islamist militants

GAZA (Reuters) - An Islamist militant killed a Hamas security official on the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt on Thursday in what was described as the first suicide bombing against Hamas.

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Hamas, which runs Gaza and has an uneasy truce with Israel, has stepped up patrols on the frontier aiming to prevent hardline Sunni Muslim Jihadist Salafis moving to and from the Sinai peninsula, where Islamic State insurgents have battled Egyptian troops for years.

Hamas has also worked to prevent Jihadist Salafis from breaching the truce that ended its 2014 war with Israel, Gaza’s other neighbor.

“A security force stopped two persons who approached the border. One of them blew himself up and was killed. The other was wounded,” the Hamas-run interior ministry said in a statement.

It said several Hamas security officials were hurt, and hospital officials told reporters that one of them died of his wounds.

A Jihadist Salafi group claimed the men who clashed with Hamas as its members, saying they tried to reach Sinai so as to attack Israel from there. Israel and Egypt have been cooperating in Cairo’s crackdown on Islamic State in Sinai.

“The brothers didn’t find a place to breathe in Gaza, so they headed toward the Sinai front to take part in the fight against the Jews and those who protect them there,” said a statement posted on a pro-Salafi website, Ibn Taymia Media Center.

The two men, it said, wore bomb belts in anticipation of being “met by the bullets of those who guard the Jews and (Egyptian President Abdel Fattah) al-Sisi”. Security sources in Gaza described the incident as the first suicide bombing against Hamas.

Hamas has been pursuing improved relations with Egypt, which keeps its border crossing with Gaza largely shut. Cairo has accused the group in the past of aiding Sinai militants. Hamas has denied those allegations.

Gaza’s Salafis are proponents of global holy war endorsed by Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings in Israel in the past, seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It has shown little tolerance for Salafi movements, detaining many of their members and raiding homes in searches for weapons.

In a statement, Hamas’s armed wing said it would “not hesitate to defend our people, our land and to protect the project of resistance against all threats”.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Sandra Maler