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Palestinians seal Gaza-Egypt border

Israelis urged to open Rafah

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Hundreds of Palestinian troops sealed off Gaza's border with Egypt yesterday, ending a weeklong free-passage period along the frontier that had irritated Israeli officials and undermined efforts by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, to bring Gaza under control.

Palestinian officials called on Israel to allow them to open the official border crossing at Rafah, which Israel closed before it pulled out of Gaza last week. The Palestinians also sent technicians to install X-ray machines and to lay electrical lines in the terminal.

''Preparations are underway in the crossing, and God willing . . . the process will move smoothly," Abbas said.

An Israeli official, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in New York, said the disorder might delay reopening of the crossing. Sharon said yesterday that he has asked European leaders and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to press for the disarming of Hamas militants and the abolition of their covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel.

Also yesterday, thousands of Hamas supporters flooded Gaza City streets for a victory parade.

Thousands of masked gunmen, some carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, others with assault rifles, led the march down a main Gaza boulevard.

About a dozen gunmen rappelled down the side of a 10-story building, unrolling huge green Hamas flags.

Militants drove cars with rocket launchers and many of the gunmen fired in the air. Some people wore green Hamas hats emblazoned with the slogan, ''Gaza . . . another step to victory."

The Islamic group says it drove Israel out with scores of attacks over the past five years.

Abbas said the withdrawal was a victory for his policy of pursuing negotiations with Israel.

Each side is hoping to turn the pullout to its political advantage, in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

The border remained one of the key issues left unresolved when Israel completed its Gaza withdrawal. The Palestinians wanted to open the Rafah crossing to allow people and cargo to move freely into Egypt.

Israel, concerned that militants and advanced weaponry would flow into Gaza, said it wanted traffic redirected through Israeli-controlled crossings. Israeli officials said they would consider allowing the Palestinians to open Rafah.

That city is the Gazans' main outlet to the outside world, in six months if they rein in militants and establish order.

After Israel withdrew from Gaza last week, thousands of Palestinians bypassed the terminal and stormed the border wall.

They visited long-lost relatives, bought cases of cheap cigarettes, or enjoyed a brief vacation along Egypt's Mediterranean coast. Some smuggled weapons into Gaza, Palestinian officials said. Egyptian and Palestinian border guards failed repeatedly in efforts to end the chaos and to close the border.

But yesterday, the gaps in the 10-mile border wall were sealed and 2,000 members of a security force fanned out across the border, effectively closing it, said Adnan Barbach, a spokesman for the Palestinian National Security Forces.

The Palestinians were working with Egypt to make sure that the people who had previously scrambled over the border could return home, he said.

''The chaos that existed here is over," Abbas said after touring the border.

On the Egyptian side, hundreds of troops with automatic rifles and armored vehicles took up positions as well. Under an agreement with Israel, Egypt is deploying 750 guards to prevent illegal crossing of goods and people.

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