Egypt moves to close Gaza border, but breaches remain

( dpa ) - Egyptian security forces in full riot gear deployed along the border with Gaza Friday, in an attempt to restore order after two days of anarchy that saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians cross over freely and stock up on scarce supplies in Egypt.

But after a 3 pm (1300 GMT) deadline set by Egypt for them to return expired, tens of thousands of Gazans were still believed to be in al-Arish on the coast some 50 kilometres south-west of Gaza and on the Egyptian side of the divided border town of Rafah.

The thousands of Egyptian troops, in green camouflage, bullet- proof vests and helmets and armed with clubs and plastic shields, formed human chains and rolled out barbed wire to keep any more Gazans from entering Egypt.

At the same time, thousands of Gazans carrying sacks and boxes with goods, however, were allowed back into the Strip, witnesses said.

Several youths threw stones at the Egyptian guards, who scuffled with and sporadically used water canons and fired into the air to push back crowds angered at the re-closure of the border. The volleys of gunfire grew more intense in the lead-up to the expiration of the deadline and after.

But in the late afternoon, militants used bulldozers to break another hole in the border fence, and scores of trucks and pedestrians were again seen streaming unhindered into Egypt.

The deadline was earlier announced over megaphones on Egyptian security vehicles driving around al-Arish and Egyptian Rafah, where many Palestinians had spent the night, either with relatives, on benches or in parks.

Egypt's decision to re-close the border after the two-day Palestinian shopping spree in its towns near Gaza followed pressure from the United States and Israel, which is concerned that weapons, militants and cash for radical factions crossed over freely along with the scarce goods Gazans have been stocking up on.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters on her way to Colombia Thursday that the US understood Egypt's "difficult situation."

But, she said, "it is an international border; it needs to be protected. And I believe that Egypt understands the importance of doing that."

Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak meanwhile offered to host talks between Hamas and the rival Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to help end the crisis.

Israel Thursday night declared a high alert along its own southern border, closing its main road there to civilian traffic, a military statement said, amid fears militants from Gaza might attempt to infiltrate the country from Israel's long, difficult to secure border with Egypt.

The Israeli government also issued a travel warning to Israelis in the Sinai, saying Palestinian militants may use the open border to abduct Israeli civilians or off-duty soldiers on holiday in the Egyptian peninsula and take them to Gaza.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to meet Sunday to debate the crisis in Gaza.

But while Abbas demands Israel ease its tight blockade of the Strip, which had triggered the storming of the Gaza-Egypt border early Wednesday, Olmert has said it will not do so unless daily rocket attacks at its southern towns and villages end.

Israel responded to a surge in such rocket attacks when it completely sealed its border crossings with Gaza Friday last week for four days. It then opened two of its crossings with Gaza to humanitarian aid and diesel for the Strip's only local power plant and for hospital generators.

But it announced a new policy, under which the entry of humanitarian aid and fuel would be down to the bare minimum necessary to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

The goal, Israel said, it to step up the pressure on the militants who are firing the rockets. But human rights groups have condemned the move as collective punishment.

Meanwhile two Israeli airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah early Friday killed four militants of the radical Islamic Hamas movement, including a senior commander.

Palestinian militants earlier attacked an Israeli border police checkpoint and a Jewish settlement in and near Jerusalem late Thursday.

A border policeman was killed and a policewoman was moderately injured when gunmen of Abbas' Fatah movement opened fire from short range at the checkpoint in East Jerusalem's Shu'afat refugee camp.

And two Palestinian attackers were killed after infiltrating a religious school in the Kfar Etzion settlement, south of Jerusalem. The two, ex-detainees and suspected Hamas members were overpowered and shot after stabbing and injuring two local security guards.

Israeli troops later Friday drove into the attackers' village of Beit Ummar, near Hebron, to carry out arrests, sparking clashes with stone-throwers and killing a 17-year-old youth.

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