Hamas Says Egypt Kills 4 Tunnel Smugglers with Gas

By: Rizek Abdel Jawad - AP Writer
By: Rizek Abdel Jawad - AP Writer

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Egyptian forces pumped gas into a cross-border tunnel used to smuggle goods into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, killing four Palestinians, Hamas officials said.

Egypt has been under pressure to seal off the hundreds of tunnels that are a key economic lifeline for the blockaded Palestinian territory but which are also used to bring in weapons for the Islamic militant group.

Israel and Egypt have kept Gaza's official border crossings closed since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in 2007 from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who now only governs in the West Bank.

A Hamas security official in charge of the tunnel area along the border said the Egyptians filled the passage with some type of crowd dispersal gas. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name.

The Hamas Interior Ministry later said in a statement the gas used to try to clear the tunnel was poisonous. Besides those killed, six people were injured, it said.

"The Interior Ministry confirms that the citizens' cause of death was the Egyptian security forces spraying poison gasses into one of the tunnels," the statement said without elaborating.

A doctor at a hospital in the Gaza border town of Rafah, Hamdan Abu Latifa, said the dead smugglers suffocated.

An Egyptian border security official refused to comment Wednesday.

Egyptian security forces have sprayed gas into tunnels before,
according to Hamas officials and tunnel operators. But Wednesday's
incident was the first time people have died as a result, they
said.

A Hamas official demanded an explanation.

"This is a terrible crime committed by Egyptian security
against simple Palestinian workers who were trying to earn their
daily bread," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum to The Associated
Press. "It was a killing in cold blood. Hamas and all the
Palestinian people condemn it strongly."

"We demand that Egypt explain its position about what is
happening and investigate the circumstances of this terrible crime
and show the truth to the entire world and hold those responsible
accountable," he said.

The United States and Israel have been pushing Egypt to do more
to try to close the tunnels, which provide Hamas with a lifeline
helping it to stay in power in Gaza. Weapons and other contraband
regularly move through the tunnels.

But the 1.5 million residents of the impoverished Gaza Strip
also rely on the tunnels to bring in food and commercial goods like
refrigerators and clothing.

Israeli aircraft have targeted the tunnels in bombing runs in
the past, particularly during its military offensive against Gaza
more than a year ago to stop daily rocket attacks. Tunnel workers
have also been killed when passageways accidentally collapsed.

Many of the tunnels, dug with electrical drills and running side
by side under the border, are just high enough to enable workers to
move on all fours. Their entrances are covered by tents and they
are equipped with motorized pulleys to haul goods and
generator-powered lighting.

Palestinian officials in Rafah say Egypt has stepped up a
crackdown on smuggling in recent months, blowing up numerous tunnel
entrances on its side of the border, setting up checkpoints in the
area and confiscating contraband. Since December, Egypt has also
been building an underground steel wall to block the tunnels.

Rafah officials have said about four miles (six kilometers) of
that barrier - covering roughly half of the border area - is
already complete.

The officials say the Egyptian measures have led to a sharp
slowdown in tunnel traffic in recent months, pinching the local
economy.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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