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Egypt arrests two armed Palestinians at Gaza tunnel

Egyptian security forces arrested two armed Palestinians as they emerged from a border tunnel with the Gaza Strip and were searching for seven others believed to have slipped into Egypt, security sources said.

world Updated: Jan 30, 2009 22:12 IST

Egyptian security forces arrested two armed Palestinians as they emerged from a border tunnel with the Gaza Strip on Friday, and were searching for seven others believed to have slipped into Egypt, security sources said.

"Two Palestinian smugglers were caught immediately upon exiting a tunnel in the al-Barahma area of the border between Egypt and Gaza, and they were armed," one source said.

The sources said the detained Palestinians told investigators that seven other Palestinians had crossed earlier on Friday, and Egyptian security forces were searching the area.

For the 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, the tunnels have become a main source of goods, including fuel, since Israel tightened its embargo after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

Israel bombed the tunnels during its recent 22-day Gaza offensive, and its military fears Hamas could use them to re-arm. But many tunnels have sophisticated systems and seem to have survived weeks of Israeli bombardment.

Roughly 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the Gaza offensive before both sides declared an end to the fighting on Jan. 18. Israel says its offensive was aimed at halting Hamas rocket attacks on its southern communities.

While Egyptian forces frequently report finding and destroying tunnels on the border with Gaza, the tunnels are usually found empty. Arrests of Palestinians accused of smuggling or caught in the tunnels are rare.

Egypt, which has kept its Rafah border crossing with the territory largely closed, has agreed to help stop the tunnel smuggling with international technical assistance.

But no firm plan is yet in place as Israel and Hamas argue through Egyptian mediators about installing a longer term ceasefire that would meet Israel's demands for shutting off the arms supply and Hamas's demands for an easing of the blockade.