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Hamas pledges to help control border

Hamas has vowed to help Cairo seal the Gaza-Egypt border, Hamas leader al-Zahar said following talks in Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of people have crossed the border since Hamas militants went through it following the Israeli lockdown.

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Hardline senior Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar said on Saturday his movement will work with Cairo to gradually bring order to the breached border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

"We will work towards controlling the border between us and Egypt ... This has to be done gradually," Zahar told reporters as he crossed back into Gaza after two days of talks with officials in Cairo.

He added that the border would be under control by Sunday.

"We have concluded an agreement between us and our brothers in Egypt to operate channels at the local level at the crossing and along the border and we will implement it tomorrow after we meet with the (Hamas-run) government."

Cairo has not yet commented on the talks, which followed a meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose forces were violently driven from Gaza by Hamas seven months ago.

An official in Abbas's Palestinian Authority denied that Egypt had made an agreement with Hamas, insisting that Egypt had agreed that "it is the Authority that has to take control of the border".

"As far as we know Egypt has decided to close the border with Gaza," the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hundreds of thousands of people have streamed across the border since January 23, when Palestinian militants blew open and bulldozed large sections of the barrier wall after a near week-long Israeli lockdown of the territory.

"The opening of the border was a popular act because we could not find coffins for our martyrs, our sick were dying, and 400 people suffering from kidney failure were threatened with death," Zahar said.

Since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June, Israel has enforced a strict closure regime on Gaza in a bid to halt the near daily rocket and mortar attacks from the coastal strip.

Since the opening of the Egyptian border the number of rockets fired has dropped off dramatically, with the Israeli army reporting only 12 projectiles in the past 10 days compared to more than 90 in the week before the breach.

Shortly after Zahar spoke, hundreds of pro-Hamas women staged a demonstration at the border crossings, waving green party banners and holding signs saying "Save Gaza" and "The crossing is Egyptian-Palestinian."

By Friday Egypt had succeeded in halting all but pedestrian traffic, but Hamas gunmen later dragged away metal barricades to allow a column of massive trucks to push into the centre of Egyptian Rafah.

"We gave our side of the story to the Egyptians about what happened on the border because there was some behaviour that was unacceptable," Zahar said, without offering specifics.

"There will not be any armed Palestinians on the border," he said.

Zahar said humanitarian aid will continue to flow through the crossing -- the only gateway to Gaza that is not under Israeli control -- adding that trucks carrying food and medicine would be processed on the Egyptian side.

Hamas has demanded that the Rafah crossing be operated through a strictly Palestinian-Egyptian agreement to replace a 2005 arrangement that included European Union observers and Israeli electronic surveillance.

Abbas has said his government should operate the crossings and has refused all contact with Hamas unless it returns Gaza to his control.

On Saturday Zahar said his delegation and the Egyptians had "overcome many obstacles" and agreed to normalise the border in the way Hamas had requested.

"There will be discussions among international bodies to solve these problems, to normalise the border in the way we have demanded and not according to the whims of the Israelis," he added.

Since the January 23 breakout the border has evolved into a sprawl of chaos and commerce, with thousands of people streaming across in both directions with crates of goods, herds of animals, and plastic jugs of diesel fuel.

Egyptian forces subsequently closed in on the border area, preventing Palestinians from travelling further inland to Cairo and sealing all but two of the breaches in the barrier.

But no effort has yet been made to halt pedestrian traffic, and neither Egyptian nor Palestinian security forces have been inspecting goods on their way into or out of Gaza.

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