Palestinian gunmen kill Egyptian border guard

Skirmish near Rafa crossing also injures 15 Palestinians.

CAIRO // An Egyptian border guard was shot dead yesterday during a violent confrontation with Palestinian protesters and security officials. Egypt's government confirmed that Palestinian gunmen killed the 21-year-old Egyptian guard during a skirmish near the Rafah border crossing. As many as 15 Palestinians were injured, the Associated Press reported.

The violence followed a demonstration yesterday on the Palestinian side of the border to protest against the diversion of an international aid convoy that had been destined for Gaza. The coastal enclave has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, when Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group, first wrested control of the territory from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Hamas called for the demonstration to protest against both the diverted convoy and a new subterranean steel wall that Egypt is building to block smuggling tunnels - one of the only lifelines for the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip.

According to Al Jazeera English, the crowd of hundreds began to throw stones at nearby Egyptian border guards even before Hamas political leaders had finished addressing the protesters. Hamas security officials broke up the protesters shortly after rioting began. Hamas called the incident "regrettable". "We are not interested in raising tension at the border," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas. But he said the protest was the result of the anger felt in Gaza over the underground barrier.

"One metre away from Egypt, we ask: 'why the siege?'" a Hamas MP, Mushir al Masri, told the demonstrators. "We came today to say no to the wall." Cairo has played down the scope of the dig on the 14km border. Hamas says the "wall of death" could choke off tunnels providing a commercial lifeline for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Egyptian officials have said steel tubes were being placed at several points along the frontier to form a barrier, but have not elaborated on its purpose.

Tunnel-builders say 3,000 underground passages were operational before Israel launched a three-week Gaza offensive a year ago, but only 150 were still functional following the conflict and subsequent Israeli air raids. Israel imposed economic sanctions on the Palestinian National Authority in 2006 after Hamas defeated Fatah in elections. In June 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a land and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip when Hamas wrested control of the territory from forces loyal to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Yesterday's riots followed violent clashes Tuesday night in the nearby Egyptian port town of El Arish, where international activists were protesting against Egypt's decision to bar 59 aid lorries from entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing, insisting instead that the convoy enter through Israel. About 50 activists were injured. The blocked shipment of food, clothing, medicine and household items was part of a convoy of 189 lorries and 500 activists who had travelled overland from London to challenge Egypt's participation in Israel's blockade.

Egyptian authorities allowed 139 lorries in the Viva Palestina convoy to enter Gaza on Tuesday, but insisted that the remaining vehicles must first pass through Israel - a route that activists said would be impossible. Viva Palestina is led by George Galloway, a British member of parliament who has earned a reputation as a stalwart defender of the Palestinian people. "We refused this," Mr Galloway told Sky News of Egypt's decision to divert part of the convoy, which left London a month ago. "It is completely unconscionable that 25 per cent of our convoy should go to Israel and never arrive in Gaza. Because nothing that ever goes to Israel, ever arrives in Gaza." * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters