Militants try to demolish wall between Gaza and Egypt

Hundreds of Palestinians crossed into Egypt on Wednesday after militants, angry at the jailing of their leader, stole two bulldozers and smashed through the wall separating Gaza and Egypt. The militants rammed the wall hours after they blocked the official border crossing and took over government buildings. As many as 300 Palestinians crossed into Egypt after the wall was smashed, an Egyptian security official said. Brig. Adel Fawzi, director of criminal investigation for North Sinai, said border police were unable to stop the intruders because they had no orders to shoot.

Thousands of Egyptian Interior Ministry troops headed to the border. An Egyptian armoured vehicle was set on fire and at least three Palestinians were reported injured, one seriously when an Egyptian troop carrier crushed him against a wall, witnesses said.

The militants belong to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party. They rammed the massive wall as a show of force against the Palestinian Authority. The militants' rampage through the southern Gaza town of Rafah underscored the growing lawlessness in Palestinian towns, especially in Gaza. Abbas, who has condemned the chaos, has been unable to impose order, and his failure to keep the gunmen in check is expected to harm Fatah's prospects in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

Fatah-affiliated vigilantes demanding government jobs or the release of imprisoned friends have been responsible for much of the anarchy, particularly since Israel's pullout from Gaza in September.

The tightly run Islamic militant group Hamas, whose followers have rarely been involved in vigilante violence, is expected to do well in the vote against the corruption-tainted Fatah. Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel, has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks. The latest rampage began Tuesday, when Palestinian intelligence arrested Al Aqsa militant Alaa al-Hams on suspicion he and his followers kidnapped British human rights activist Kate Burton and her parents for two days last week. The Burtons were among 19 foreigners abducted by Fatah gunmen in Gaza in recent months. All have been freed unharmed.

Al-Hams followers then fired at the Palestinian security headquarters in the southern town of Rafah where he was held. Police and gunmen fired into the air, but there were no injuries.

On Wednesday morning, some 40 masked gunmen took over the central election office in Rafah, the local branch of the Palestinian parliament, a court and another government building. Gunmen were seen on rooftops, inside the buildings and posted at the main doors. Most workers fled.

A truckload of gunmen then drove to the nearby Rafah border crossing with Egypt, Gaza's main gate to the world. They closed the entrance gate to the crossing compound and told waiting passengers to leave. They also set up an impromptu checkpoint at the access road to the crossing, turning away travellers.

They left the buildings and the crossing after three hours. But hours later, with al-Hams still in jail, the militants stole two bulldozers in Rafah and headed for the massive wall, which keeps Palestinians out of the Philadelphi corridor next to a smaller wall that marks the official border with Egypt.

The bulldozers smashed two holes at the same spot where Hamas militants blasted through the towering concrete barrier during the border chaos following Israel's Gaza pullout. Palestinian security officials had closed the earlier hole with heavy concrete blocks, but those quickly gave way before the bulldozer.

Hundreds of Palestinians swarmed into the border corridor. The Rafah crossing was handed to Palestinian control, under European supervision, as part of a U.S.-brokered deal with Israel last month. Since then, the crossing was forced to shut down several times during attacks by gunmen.

Israel threatened to close the Rafah crossing in co-ordination with European observers if the breach is not repaired, according to a Defence Ministry complaint sent to the United States and the Palestinians, the ministry said. In the message, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz expressed grave concern over the development.

In other chaos, Palestinian gunmen burst into a Rafah house early Wednesday and tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie, an American who was killed in 2003 as she protested the impending demolition of a house in the southern Gaza town.

The five gunmen appeared to be affiliated with the ruling Fatah movement, according to Samir Nasrallah, the Corries' host, but it was not clear if they were from the same group that blockaded the border. The gunmen eventually relented after being told who their targets were, he said, reports the AP. I.L.

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