( Reuters ) - Egyptian troops stood by and let thousands of Palestinians stream out of Gaza on Saturday after failing to seal breaches blown in the border by Hamas militants defying an Israeli blockade.
The Islamist group said it was ready for direct talks with Cairo to end the border chaos, a move that appeared aimed at ensuring Hamas kept control and sidelining rival President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to put his forces there.
In a sign that Egyptian patience could be wearing thin with the Palestinians, the government warned them not to provoke security forces and said at least 38 security men had been wounded since the border was forced open on Wednesday.
Gaza-registered cars and trucks ferried food and fuel back from Egypt to evade the blockade Israel said it imposed to counter rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled strip.
Security sources said Egyptian forces were ordered to pull back from the border overnight and avoid confrontation after a failed attempt to start sealing border breaches on Friday.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Egypt was concerned by "provocations from Palestinian groups" against its forces. He said the wounded included two high-ranking officers and some of those hurt were in a critical condition.
"The Palestinian brothers should be aware that the Egyptian willingness to host them and make their lives easier cannot extend to threatening the lives of Egyptian forces," he said in remarks carried by state news agency MENA.
It was Egypt's strongest criticism of the Palestinians since the border was breached. Aboul Gheit said Egypt would invite both Hamas and Abbas's government for talks on the border.
Egypt does not want to be seen as aiding the Israeli blockade, but is under U.S. and Israeli pressure to take control. It also fears the spread of Islamist influence and the effects of hosting so many Palestinians without identity papers.
The fall of the wall was a setback to a U.S.-backed campaign to curb Hamas's clout and boost President Abbas nearly eight months after the group routed Abbas's Fatah forces in Gaza.
Palestinian officials said Abbas had a plan to end the blockade of Gaza and would urge Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to accept his offer to control Gaza crossings if the two men met as expected on Sunday.
But Israeli officials said Olmert rejected the idea.
It was also unclear how Abbas's forces could control the border without the approval of Hamas, which opposes peace talks with Israel, given that his authority extends only to the occupied West Bank.
In a clear challenge to Abbas, Hamas said it was ready to restore border controls through direct talks with Cairo.
"We are offering an alternative, which is the operation of Rafah crossing, and we are ready to coordinate this with the Egyptian government," senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters, referring to a key terminal at a frontier town.
Citing the breach in Gaza's southern border, some top Israeli officials have advocated cutting Israel's remaining links with the coastal territory and putting the onus on Egypt, which controlled Gaza until its was captured by Israel in 1967.
Israel pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still controls the strip's northern and eastern borders, airspace and coastal waters.
Gazans rushed to buy supplies while the border stayed open.
Mohamed Ali al-Shahed, 32, drove his car into Egypt to pick up a shipment of medicine ordered from Cairo for his pharmacy.
"I haven't had new drugs in my pharmacy for seven months. Thank God the pharmacy now has medicine, and at more moderate prices," he said.