Rescuers battle to save smugglers trapped in collapsed Gaza tunnel

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The Independent Online

After a marathon rescue effort, Palestinian rescue workers freed six people last night who were trapped when a smuggling tunnel under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt collapsed yesterday.

After a marathon rescue effort, Palestinian rescue workers freed six people last night who were trapped when a smuggling tunnel under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt collapsed yesterday.

After more than 12 hours underground, hope for the trapped men ­ who included at least one militant, according to sources ­ was fading when a shaft dug into the tunnel, which had been used for smuggling materials into Gaza, enabled rescue services to secure the men's release.

They were greeted by cheers and many Palestinians fired guns into the air in celebration.

"They are okay and are in good health," a witness said. "They are smoking cigarettes."

Militants have dug many tunnels from Egypt into Gaza to slip in arms, but other tunnels have been used solely to smuggle contraband, such as cigarettes. It was unclear whether the tunnel that caved in had been burrowed by militants or traders.

The Israeli army has destroyed dozens of similar tunnels. Last Sunday, five Israeli-Arab soldiers were killed when explosives were detonated in a tunnel beneath a checkpoint at the Rafah border crossing. It was one of the deadliest attacks ever by Palestinian militants against an Israeli military post near the volatile Rafah crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army maintains a security strip along Gaza's frontier with Egypt and has carried out many raids into adjacent Rafah to seek out suspected tunnels. But militants have kept digging them. Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip yesterday, Israeli forces killed at least five Palestinians in the Khan Yunis refugee camp. Tanks and bulldozers stormed in after midnight to reduce mortar and rocket attacks on nearby Jewish settlements and army posts. A military spokesman said that more than 30 had been fired from Khan Yunis in the past week, killing a Thai farm worker and wounding 17 soldiers and civilians.

Mohammed al-Astal, a spokesman for Mizan, a Palestinian human rights group, said that two of the men, Shadi al-Dada, 23, and Islam Nabrees, 25, were killed by a rocket fired from a drone. The other three, aged 23 to 41, were shot by the invading force. Palestinians identified all five as civilians, but Israelis said most of them were gunmen hit in exchanges of fire.

Mr Astal ,said the army demolished 30 houses and mined 10 multi-storey buildings after evacuating their residents.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ofer Winter, commanding an infantry unit, said the troops would stay for as long as necessary and that there was no time limit. "It is clear," he told Israel Radio, "that the mortar fire cannot be allowed to continue."

Despite the violence in the Gaza Strip, Israeli support is growing for Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 settlements there by the end of next year. An opinion poll published yesterday in the Maariv daily newspaper found 56 per cent of people, an all-time high, satisfied with the Prime Minister's performance. Some 64 per cent backed the disengagement plan and 65 per cent said they felt secure, an increase of 16 per cent since the beginning of this year.

The Labour party is likely to join Mr Sharon's coalition next week which could help in promoting the pull-out and avoid early elections, Mr Sharon's spokesman said yesterday. The co-operation of Labour, led by Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, could also help restart stalled talks with the Palestinians after they vote on 9 January for a successor to Yasser Arafat.

"They have reached an agreement," saidAssaf Shariv, a spokesman for Mr Sharon, adding that the deal was likely to be signed on Sunday.

Mr Peres said last week that Labour should join the government "unconditionally" to speed up a plan to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians by evacuating all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank next year.

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