Egyptian riot police try to stem tide of Palestinians

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The Independent Online

Egyptian security forces tried yesterday to begin the difficult process of closing the Sinai border with Gaza after a two-day breach which allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians to pour through and beat a blockade imposed by Israel.

Steel-helmeted riot police with batons and perspex shields began replacing barbed wire coils along the crossing's perimeter and closing several gates and gaps on the Egyptian side of the 100-metre wide strip of no man's land that separates the country from Gaza.

But the operation suffered a sudden setback when scores of Palestinians rushed into Egypt through a new passage after militants bulldozed the barbed-wire-and-chain-mail barrier.

The Egyptian forces fired into the air in an attempt to deter advancing Palestinians, but then appeared to stand by as the crowd, many carrying empty jerrycans to stock up on fuel, rushed past them. A large contingent of police later withdrew from one section of the border.

At about midday, only one main entrance remained open – two days after masked militants had flattened a long stretch of the part-steel, part-concrete barrier on the Gaza side of the border by detonating 17 separate explosive charges, which were laid after a two-week operation using electric cutting equipment that made it easy to collapse several hundred metres of the steel section.

Although Palestinians were still entering Egypt through the entrance, Egyptian guards appeared to be keeping it open to ensure free passage for those returning to Gaza. Some used cranes to lift cement, camels and other livestock goods on to the Gaza side of the border.

The security forces had earlier used water cannon to keep back crowds of Palestinians still trying to cross into Egypt in pursuit of goods unobtainable or prohibitively expensive in Gaza because of the seven-month closure of the Karni cargo crossing into Israel. Some in the crowds hurled stones at the Egyptian forces, though others in the crowd called for restraint.

At least one Egyptian soldier was reported to have been wounded. An Egyptian officer told Associated Press that he thought the injury was probably inflicted by what he said was sporadic gunfire from Hamas militiamen on the other side of the border. The numbers crossing the border yesterday appeared to be generally smaller than on the previous two days.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, thought to have been put under pressure by the US to close the border, said the situation in Gaza was "unacceptable" and called on Israel to "lift its siege" and "solve the problem". Some returning Palestinians said there had been loudspeaker announcements in northen Sinai towns saying the border would be shut at 7pm.

On the Gaza side of the border, Samira Kaskas, 54, an Egyptian, said she was visiting her Palestinian husband's family for the first time in 20 years. She said: "We want the crossing to be kept open but they don't want us to go in. I am worried but we will get in eventually."

Mohammed Ibrahim, 43, a Palestinian Finance Ministry official, had been hoping to cross into Egypt a second time after entering to buy medicine on Wednesday for his mother, who suffers from high blood pressure. He said: "They were only ever going to keep it open for three or four days. People should accept that." Mr Ibrahim said he was now being paid by the Ramallah-based emergency government set up by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas's seizure of control in Gaza last June.

But Taher Nonou, a spokesman for the de facto Hamas government, said efforts to close the border had not been agreed with the faction and added: "We insist and urge our Egyptian brothers that there must be a mechanism to allow the passage of people and goods through the Rafah crossing in a legal and organised manner."

The incinerated cab of an otherwise undamaged Palestinian truck was still visible near the border after an Israeli air strike killed four militants from the Hamas military wing in the early hours of Thursday. Residents said two militants had tried to jump clear of another truck parked 30 metres away but had been hit by a second missile.

Hamas claimed responsibility for two Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated the Kfar Etzion settlement in the West Bank on Thursday night and wounded three settlers before being shot dead. Palestinian gunmen also shot dead an Israeli border policeman and wounded another at the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem on Thursday.