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Egypt Fails to Close Gaza Border


Egyptian security forces have tried to seal the border with the Gaza Strip two days after it was blown open by armed Gaza militants. But Egyptian border guards gave up and withdrew after their efforts failed. Thousands of Gazans have crossed again into Egypt to buy food and other supplies as VOA correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Cairo.

Egyptian security forces in riot gear fired warning shots into the air and formed a human chain to try to stop people from flooding into Egypt from the Gaza Strip.

But as the Egyptians tried to seal off the main breach in the security wall, a group of militants in black used a bulldozer to smash another hole in the barrier. The border guards withdrew from the area not long afterward and the border remained open.

Earlier, riot police had aimed water cannons over the heads of the crowd to try and force it back. Scuffles broke out several times, and some Palestinians threw rocks at the police. Police announced over loudspeakers that the border would be closed completely by the end of the day. But as darkness fell, it was clear the Egyptian troops had been overwhelmed and gave up.

One Gaza resident said people had been hoping that, in his words, "our Egyptian brothers" would be more understanding, but now he fears there will be clashes between the Palestinian people and Egyptian security forces.

It was not clear what Cairo was planning to do next.

Egyptian police have set up checkpoints on the roads leading out of Sinai to keep Palestinians from traveling to Cairo or elsewhere in Egypt.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman was unavailable for comment Friday, but he said on Thursday that the border would eventually be closed and, in his words, things would "go back to normal."

Officials from Gaza's ruling Islamic group Hamas say they want the Rafah crossing to remain open, and they want a say in how it is run. They say they plan to keep breaking open the border wall to keep the pressure on Egyptian and Israeli authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have crossed into Egypt since Gaza-based militants blew a hole in the wall and then toppled much of it on Wednesday.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he ordered security forces to let people pass so they could buy food, medicine, fuel and other vital supplies and then return home to the Gaza Strip.

Shop shelves were quickly wiped clean in the border towns of Rafah and El-Arish. Many people crossed the border in both directions to visit relatives.

The Rafah border post is the only way in or out of Gaza, bypassing the blockade that Israel imposed on the territory last week. The Israeli closure barred shipments of fuel and other staples into the area. The Rafah crossing with Egypt has been mostly shut since Hamas took power in Gaza last June.

Cairo is concerned that a wide open border with Gaza could fuel the spread to Egypt of a Hamas-style militancy. Also, in the past few years, a number of terror attacks in Egypt's Red Sea resort towns inflicted heavy casualties, and officials fear an open border could compromise security in the lucrative south Sinai tourist industry.

Egypt says it cannot bring the border under control unless it is allowed to bring more troops into northern Sinai, which is barred under the terms of the Camp David Accords signed about 30 years ago. Israel has so far refused to allow an increase.