Sharon apologises for killings of Egyptian police on Gaza border

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday personally expressed his "deep sorrow" to the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, after an Israeli tank crew killed three Egyptian policemen on the southern Gaza border.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday personally expressed his "deep sorrow" to the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, after an Israeli tank crew killed three Egyptian policemen on the southern Gaza border.

An angry Egyptian foreign ministry has demanded a full explanation for the 3am shooting which it called "irresponsible conduct" by Israel and which Mr Sharon told Mr Mubarak had happened when the troops mistook members of the Egyptian security forces for Palestinian militants planting explosives.

Israeli officials moved swiftly to try to limit the diplomatic fallout from what they called a "tragic incident", at a time when Cairo and Jerusalem are trying to co-operate on patrolling the Gaza border after Israel withdraws. Senior Israeli officers agreed the tank round had been fired after 40 minutes of discussion between the tank commander and his platoon leader.

The shooting, the most serious incident between the two countries since the present Palestinian uprising began four years ago, was on the Israeli-controlled corridor between the southern Gaza border town of Rafah and the Egyptian border. Colonel David Menachem, Israel's acting commander in Gaza, said soldiers had targeted "terrorists" who had slipped into the narrow corridor under cover of darkness and were laying a mine.

Sharon Feingold, a spokes-woman for the Israeli Defence Forces, said explosives had been laid around a military outpost and had still not been defused. She said the Palestinian militants had been on the Palestinian side of the border fence and the Egyptian members of the security forces 200m away on the Egyptian side.

Major-General Dan Harel, the head of Israel's southern military command, said the tank commander, who had spotted what he thought was a group of Palestinian militants, sought clearance to fire from his platoon leader.

He added: "One shell was fired at the target and they saw that the gang [of Palestinians] was not hit. The firing was stopped and they began to try to figure out what happened. The Egyptians told us Egyptian policemen were hit. We made the connection between the casualties among the policemen and our having fired [at the gunmen]. We immediately apologised and offered all necessary assistance."

Raanan Gissin, Mr Sharon's spokesman, said: "This was a case of mistaken identity in darkness in an urban area where there is a lot of terrorist activity and where the weather conditions were bad."

An earlier statement from the Prime Minister's office said President Mubarak had accepted Mr Sharon's apology, in which Mr Sharon expressed "deep sorrow" for the shooting. The statement said Mr Mubarak had also expressed "the hope that bilateral co-operation will continue and deepen".

Israeli officials also said they did not expect the shooting to result in the cancellation of a visit to Israel next week by the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheith, to discuss ways of helping the Palestinians prepare for the possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel promised a top-level investigation and to share the results with Cairo. An Israeli Army spokesman went on the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera to reinforce the apology.

The Israeli army is also investigating reports of soldiers saying they had desecrated bodies of Palestinians and posed for pictures beside them. The newspaper Yedhiot Ahronot said one unnamed soldier had claimed he and other troops "played like Lego" with the remains of a suicide bomber who had killed only himself at a checkpoint. Another unnamed soldier was said to have described how the body of an unarmed Palestinian killed in Gaza was brought to their outpost and soldiers posed with the body, taking photos and giving him the nickname "Inny" for "innocent civilian".

The IDF said "morality and purity of arms" were the foundation of their military code, but challenged some of the details in the newspaper.

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