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Egypt Begins Restricting Traffic Across Border From Gaza

Egyptian border guards have begun restricting traffic across the border from the Gaza Strip, five days after parts of a border security fence was blown up, allowing Palestinians to flood into Egypt to buy food and supplies. Egyptian authorities are blocking supply trucks that are headed toward Rafah - so shopkeepers cannot replenish the supplies that have lured hundreds of thousands of Gazans across the border in recent days. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from the border town of Rafah.

Hamas set up a stage and loudspeakers for a rally at the border, but a drenching rain put a damper on the event. Instead, scores of children huddled under the stage to try to stay dry. More people sought shelter from the downpour under the toppled sections of the metal barricade that used to mark the border between Egypt and Gaza, until it was knocked down on Wednesday.

After five days of virtually unrestricted traffic, Egyptian border guards began exerting some control over the vehicles crossing the border. They refused to let Egyptian-registered cars enter Gaza, and Hamas-affiliated gunmen on the other side were blocking Palestinian-registered vehicles from entering Egypt.

But pedestrians continued to pass through freely. The rain kept crowds thinner than on previous days, and turned the town into a muddy mess. But there were still thousands of people gingerly navigating around badly flooded streets and slogging through ankle-deep mud to cross the border in both directions.

Egyptian security forces brought in more reinforcements and set up scores of checkpoints on every road leading out of Rafah to prevent Palestinians from Gaza from heading for the nearby town of El-Arish, about 35 kilometers away.

In some places, there were roadblocks every 100 meters, and vehicles were being thoroughly checked at each one. But it was clear that those efforts were not entirely successful. At one checkpoint, while the officers were busy examining the identification of a carload of journalists, at least 20 Palestinians could be seen sprinting across the road behind them, working their way to El-Arish on foot through the olive-trees.

Some of the people crossing into Egypt said they had no desire to return to Gaza.

Forty five-year-old Yousra Azzam said she was trying to get to El-Arish to apply for a visa to the United Arab Emirates. Her husband and children live there, she said, and she wants to join them.

Other people were still coming to do business, buying and selling goods such as motorcycles, jars of honey and laundry detergent. Many complained that the prices have risen sharply since the border was breached, and accused Egyptian traders of price-gouging.

Although many of the Palestinians and Egyptians doing business with them would like the border to remain open in some way, some people are beginning to tire of the pandemonium.

A 24-year-old Palestinian named Zayed Mismeh said he would prefer a normal border crossing, where he could enter Egypt legally with a stamp in his passport. He said, 'We do not want this chaos.'

Mismeh said despite the bad weather, he returned to Egypt to buy supplies because he fears the authorities will soon close the border for good.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said Egypt will take the necessary measures to control the Gaza border soon.

The border issue has sparked a series of high-level diplomatic activity throughout the region, including a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas wants the Palestinian Authority, run by his Fatah faction, to take control of the Rafah crossing.

Some 700,000 people have crossed from Gaza into Egypt since the border wall was toppled on Wednesday, days after Israel began imposing a near total blockade on the Gaza Strip in an effort to stop rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Egyptian security forces tried and failed to re-close the border by force on Friday, but they withdrew after clashes erupted and militants knocked down a new section of the barricade with a bulldozer.

The Rafah border post is the only way in or out of Gaza that bypasses Israel, but it has been almost entirely closed since Hamas violently took control of Gaza in June.