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Egypt vows to control Gaza border, assures Abbas

MYT 8:45:56 PM

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Egypt vowed to take control of its breached border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's government said it had agreed with Cairo to run the crossing, excluding Hamas.

But questions remain over how such an agreement could work given rejection by the Hamas Islamists, who seized Gaza from Abbas's forces last June and blasted open the border with Egypt on Wednesday in defiance of an Israeli-led blockade.

Egyptian soldiers close part of a destroyed section of the border wall between the Gaza Strip and Egypt January 27, 2008. Egypt vowed to take control of its breached border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's government said it had agreed with Cairo to run the crossing, excluding Hamas. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

Egypt has struggled to seal the breaches in its border as hundreds of thousands of needy Gazans poured across to stock up on goods. Hamas has threatened to keep the border open until it has a role in any future border crossing agreement.

Israel has so far resisted Abbas's request to take control of Gaza crossing points, including the one with Egypt at Rafah, but Palestinian officials said the president would press his case in talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday.

The fall of the border at Rafah has further weakened a U.S.-backed campaign to curb the clout of Hamas and strengthen Abbas by restarting peace talks with Israel. Hamas refuses to give up its fight against Israel.

Speaking in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Egypt would take steps to control the border with Gaza as soon as possible, but did not spell out how.

Local merchants said the authorities appeared to be trying a different tactic to discourage the Gazans after failing to seal the breaches -- stopping supplies reaching the border area.

"They are trying to strangle us here so that we go home," said Rami Shabar, a 30-year-old trader from Gaza. He said he was still able to find goods in Egypt but "at very high prices."

AGREEMENT IN QUESTION

The Palestinian foreign minister, in Cairo for talks with Egyptian leaders, said Egypt had agreed to restore a 2005 border agreement giving Abbas control over the Rafah crossing.

Under the agreement, Riyad al-Malki said, Abbas's presidential guard would provide security there. The guard was stationed there until Hamas routed forces loyal to Abbas's secular Fatah faction.

"Hamas will be told this is the position, and if they don't accept it, they will be held responsible for the protracted closure of the border crossings," Malki said.

But Hamas rejected returning control of the Rafah crossing.

"We have our own vision of how the crossing will be run and we will present our vision to our Egyptian brothers," Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Israeli officials say they are unsure whether Abbas's forces would have the clout to control the border. Hamas has shown its ability to undercut Egyptian efforts to re-seal the border by using bulldozers to open new passages.

The 2005 agreement put European monitors at the Gaza-Egypt border terminal and gave Israel the power to close the crossing and monitor Palestinian travellers by television relay.

Israel, which occupied Gaza in 1967, pulled out in 2005 but still controls Gaza's other borders, airspace and coastal waters. Earlier this month, Israel tightened a blockade it says is meant to counter rocket fire from Gaza, but limited fuel and aid supplies were restored after an international outcry.

Abbas, whose authority is effectively restricted to the occupied West Bank, says his control would help alleviate Israel's clampdown on impoverished Gaza, home to 1.5 million people. Abbas rejects Hamas accusations that he supports the closures as a way to weaken the Islamists.

"We want to end this crisis through the takeover of control of the border crossing by the legitimate Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas," a senior Egyptian diplomat said.

Abbas is expected to travel to Egypt on Wednesday for talks.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Alaa Shahine in Cairo, and Adam Entous, Dan Williams and Avida Landau in Jerusalem)

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