(AFP) – Jan 31, 2008
RAFAH, Egypt (AFP) — The Egypt-Gaza border was sealed off to Palestinian vehicles on Thursday as talks began in Cairo to resolve a crisis triggered when militants blew holes in the frontier barrier last week.
Egyptian security forces and militants from the Islamist movement Hamas which controls Gaza were working in tandem to control the frontier, an Egyptian policeman said.
"The order was given, there seems to have been an agreement," the policeman said at Saladdin Gate, one of the two crossings linking the divided border town of Rafah.
In addition to vehicles, donkey- and horse-drawn carts were also being prevented from crossing into Egypt, an AFP correspondent said.
Amid confusion over arrangements at the two gates, one Hamas militant shot in the air to prevent a Gazan entering Egypt, the correspondent reported.
However pedestrian traffic was still moving in both directions despite driving rain, and at Brazil Gate Egyptian-registered vehicles laden with merchandise were moving in both directions.
"I don't think they'll close the crossing for another week or so," said Mohammed Sobhi, 29, from Egyptian Rafah as he made his way through an ankle-deep river of mud, balancing a box of baby formula he intended to sell for a profit in Gaza.
"There are still people coming and going and there's still so many Palestinians in Egypt that it'll take time for them to go back," he said.
All breaches in the border barrier, which was blown up by militants on January 22 after Israel imposed a punishing blockade on Gaza, have been closed by fencing and barbed wire.
The radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad staged a demonstration in front of Saladdin Gate, with several hundred people taking part.
The protesters urged Egypt to keep open the Rafah crossings -- Gaza's sole frontier post that bypasses Israel and which has been closed nearly continuously since June 2006 after militants seized an Israeli soldier.
Towards the Israeli border with Gaza, near Rafah, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian militant after he "approached the security barrier" between the territory and the Jewish state, a military spokesman said.
Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have taken advantage of the breach to swarm into Egypt from the largely isolated and impoverished territory.
A delegation headed by Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal began talks in Cairo with Egypt's powerful intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman on solving the issue of Gaza crossings, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.
It is the first visit to Egypt by the Damascus-based Meshaal since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in June, an action criticised by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
On Wednesday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas hardened their positions on ways to control the Egypt-Gaza border.
After meeting Mubarak, Abbas reiterated his rejection of talks with Hamas and said the Islamist group's breach of the border last week amounted to an "invasion."
"Hamas has to go back on its coup d'etat and... accept the legitimacy (of the Palestinian Authority), and then hearts and minds would be open for dialogue," he said.
Under a 2005 deal, the Rafah crossing was to be supervised by European Union monitors with cameras to allow Israel to monitor traffic.
The diplomatic push in Cairo follows the UN Security Council's failure on Tuesday to adopt a compromise statement on the Gaza breakout amid disagreements between Arab states and Israel's key ally the United States.
An Egyptian security force of around 20,000 has been deployed in the north of the Sinai peninsula since Saturday, a security source told AFP, many of them picking up Palestinians and returning them to the border.
Earlier this month Israel imposed a total lockdown on Gaza to try to halt rocket fire by militants. Just days later, it eased the stranglehold, but is continuing to limit the delivery of crucial fuel supplies.
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