Gunmen bulldoze wall to free accused man

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The Independent Online

Armed militants bulldozed a wall on the southern Gaza border in order to free a man who was arrested in connection with the kidnapping of the British human rights activist Kate Burton.

The masked gunmen overran four public buildings and closed off the Rafah crossing into Egypt after attempting to kidnap five Americans, including the parents of Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she tried to stop the demolition of a house in the Gaza town.

The kidnap attempt in the early hours of yesterday by six members of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades was abandoned after the Corries' Palestinian host, Samir Nasrallah, persuaded the men to leave after a tense half-hour stand-off.

Egyptian troops fired into the air as armoured vehicles and soldiers failed to stop hundreds of Palestinians streaming across the border after the gunmen commandeered two bulldozers and punched a hole in the 8m-high wall separating Rafah from the Philadelphia corridor between Egypt and Gaza.

The latest violent defiance by gunmen of the Gaza authorities started late on Tuesday night after Palestinian intelligence arrested Alaa al-Hams, a militant in the al-Aqsa Brigades suspected of having played a leading part in the kidnap of Ms Burton and her parents. The Burtons were released early on Saturday after being held for 58 hours.

Yesterday morning, about 40 masked gunmen took control of the central election office in Rafah and three Palestinian Authority offices, fanning across rooftops and occupying the buildings. A group then sped by truck to the Rafah terminal, closed the entrance, ordered pedestrians to turn back, and set up a checkpoint on the road to the crossing. Several hours later, with the kidnap suspect still in custody, they bulldozed the wall, though leaving the smaller one between the corridor and the Egyptian border intact.

Craig and Cindy Corrie were staying at Mr Nasrallah's house in Rafah, with three other Americans.

The Corries, frequent visitors to Gaza since their daughter's death, are board members of the California-based Rebuilding Alliance that seeks to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to replace homes demolished the Israeli Army.

Mr Nasrallah said the six men, armed with AK-47s, arrived at about 2.30am. The Corries were asleep in an upstairs bedroom. "I got up with a neighbour who works for Palestinian security and talked to the men for half an hour. Every minute seemed like an hour. I told them they were smearing the image of the Palestinian people and that Mr and Mrs Corrie's daughter had been killed by the Israelis and they were here helping the Palestinians."

Mr Corrie said last night: "We were not physically threatened, although obviously this is a situation we did not want to be in."

Mr Nasrallah continued: "This chaos is very bad for us. The PA can do nothing against them because there are so many weapons in Rafah. Every third house has a weapon." But, he added: "People believe the al-Aqsa Martyrs are working for the interests of centres of power in the PA and security forces. We are the victims." Mr and Mrs Corrie left Gaza later in the day.

In a separate development, the Palestinian planning minister, Ghassan Khatib, called on the international community to step in because Israel had "reneged on its commitments" to help the Gaza economy in a deal brokered by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

He said Israel had failed to install a new security scanner to speed up cargo through the Karni crossing and to open a "safe passage" between Gaza and the West Bank. He added: "Israel is now flaunting its continued occupation of the Palestinian territory by indiscriminately and illegally bombarding the northern Gaza Strip."

Israel says the bombardment is aimed at the Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli targets - another eight of which were launched from Gaza yesterday.

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