Gaza gunmen kill two Egyptian soldiers

GAZA — Another day of disorder ravaged the Gaza Strip Wednesday, as gunmen linked to Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades went on the rampage in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, bulldozing a barricade on the Gaza side of the Egypt border and killing two Egyptian soldiers.

Also in Rafah, the parents of an American peace activist who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer found themselves briefly kidnapped, and further north, in defiance of the Israeli-imposed “no-go” zone, eight Qassam rockets were fired at the Israeli town of Ashkelon.

In Hebron, meanwhile, Israeli soldiers killed what the army said was a wanted Palestinian in “an exchange of fire.”

The trouble in Rafah started early in the morning when gunmen affiliated to Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades first took over the local election office and then headed for the border crossing to Egypt.

After commandeering a bulldozer to cheers from onlookers, they smashed through concrete blocks lining the border near the Palestinian refugee camp of Yibna, witnesses said, and one of two walls the Israeli army had erected on the border.

The Associated Press reported that armed Palestinian militants then shot and killed the two Egyptian security troops and wounded 30 others.

Gen. Essam Al Sheikh, the chief of security forces in the North Sinai, said the Palestinians were firing automatic weapons and shotguns, and that the Egyptian troops were forced to pull back one kilometre from the border.

Brig. Adel Fawzi, also with the North Sinai force, said the troops were hampered initially because they had no orders to shoot. Sheikh, however, said Egyptian forces were later Tuesday firing back.

The scene was one of utter chaos, with the Palestinians setting fire to automobile tyres. An Egyptian armoured vehicle was burning and hundreds of Palestinians could be seen crouched in farm fields just inside Egypt.

Hundreds of Egyptians, perhaps more than a thousand, also crossed into Gaza. There are large numbers of divided families in the region, and some used the chaotic situation as an opportunity to reunite with relatives.

The crossing was handed to Palestinian control, under European supervision, as part of a US-brokered deal with Israel in November.

A spokesman for the European observers, Julio de la Guardia, said disruptions outside the crossing are an internal Palestinian matter.

“Our functioning at the border crossing has not been disturbed,” he told AP.

The Rafah gunmen are protesting the arrest of one of their leaders, Ala Al Hams, who was detained Tuesday in connection with the kidnapping last week of a British aid worker and her parents.

The gunmen said they would prevent voting in Rafah in scheduled parliamentary elections later this month unless Palestinian security forces free Hams. They also threatened to kidnap any Palestinian Authority official who passes through the Rafah crossing.

“We have not yet received answers on our demands to immediately release Ala Al Hams,” said a spokesman for the gunmen who called himself Abu Yazan, according to Reuters.

“[The election office] will remain closed and we will not allow parliamentary elections to be held in Rafah unless Ala is released,” he added.

In a separate incident in Rafah on Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen burst into a house and tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie who was killed in 2003 when she was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer trying to protect a house from demolition.

Corrie’s parents were staying in the same house their daughter had given her life to save. According to wire reports, their host, Samir Nasrallah, said the gunmen, apparently also affiliated to Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, relented after being told who their targets were.

Eight Qassam rockets were also fired at the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon Wednesday in apparent retaliation for an Israeli air strike Monday that killed three Islamic Jihad members.

No damage or injuries were reported.

Israeli army chief of staff, Dan Halutz, said Tuesday that the so-called “Blue Skies” offensive, an operation that started last week with the designation of the 12-square-kilometre “no-go” zone in northern Gaza and artillery fire at anything that moves within the zone, has provided only a “partial solution” to the firing of Qassam rockets at Ashkelon, and fails to provide any solution to the firing of Qassam rockets at the Negev town of Sderot.

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