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Two Egyptian border guards were killed and at least 30 wounded when scores of Fatah gunmen opened fire at Egyptian army posts after demolishing parts of the concrete slabs along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, enabling many Palestinians to cross into Egypt.
Eyewitnesses said the gunmen used a bulldozer and explosives to create a hole in the wall. Egyptian border guards and Palestinian Authority policemen fired into the air in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Palestinians from infiltrating into Egypt, they added.
The gunmen were protesting the arrest of one of their colleagues by the PA security forces on charges of kidnapping three British nationals.
PA security officials said Ala al-Hams, a senior commander of Fatah's armed wing in the southern Gaza Strip, was arrested in connection with last week's abduction of Kate Burton, 25, and her parents. The three were later released unharmed.
Hams was arrested by masked policemen while he was walking in the street on Tuesday night. In response, dozens of Fatah gunmen attacked PA civil and security installations in Rafah, including the local municipality, Interior Ministry, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Economy, Palestinian Central Elections Commission and the electric company.
The gunmen also blocked the entrance to the Rafah border crossing, preventing passengers from arriving at the terminal.
"This is part of the struggle between those trying to impose the law and order and the others," said PA Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib.
But the real purpose of the violence was to prevent the elections from taking place on January 25, he said.
Several gunmen also tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie, an American woman who was killed in Rafah in 2003 when she tried to stop an IDF bulldozer from demolishing a Palestinian house.
The kidnapping attempt failed and the parents were not hurt.
Human rights activists in the Gaza Strip said the Corries were visiting the Gaza Strip to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. On Tuesday, the Corries visited the offices of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
The two later left the Gaza Strip out of fear for their lives.
The gunmen managed to steal two bulldozers and several vehicles belonging to the PA security forces in Rafah. One of the bulldozers was used to knock down the concrete slabs along the border between Rafah and Egypt.
According to some reports, Egyptian border guards who spotted the gunmen opened fire at them. No casualties were reported.
In Ramallah, PA officials told The Jerusalem Post that the Egyptian authorities had threatened to close down the Rafah border crossing in response to the infiltration.
"The Egyptians are very angry," said one official. "They're also threatening to open fire at any Palestinian who crosses the border illegally."
Gen. Essam el-Sheikh, the chief of security forces in the northern Sinai, said the Palestinians were firing automatic weapons and shotguns, and that the Egyptian troops were forced to pull back one kilometer from the border.
Brig. Adel Fawzi, also with the northern Sinai force, said the troops were hampered initially because they had no orders to shoot. El-Sheikh, however, said Egyptian forces now were firing back.
Hundreds of Egyptians, perhaps more than a thousand, also crossed into Gaza. There are large numbers of divided families in the region, and some used the chaotic situation as an opportunity to reunite with relatives.
In Khan Yunis, two Palestinians were killed in the past 48 hours in clashes between two families. The melee was triggered by a fight between schoolchildren, which quickly developed into an armed confrontation. Another six people, including children, were injured.
Gen. Ala Hosni, commander of the Civil Police, on Wednesday dismissed reports that the PA was crumbling.
"The Palestinian Authority continues to exist in spite of political differences between rival factions," he said. "Those who are fighting on the streets should cast their ballots at the polling stations instead of attacking public buildings."
Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip accused the PA leadership of failing to enforce law and order. "What's happening in the Gaza Strip is a big scandal," said Fatah legislator Abu Ali Shahin. "Palestinians are asking themselves: 'Where is Abu Mazen [Abbas]? Where is the interior minister?'"
Muwafak Matar, a columnist for the Ramallah-based Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda, said the main problem was that the security forces still haven't received orders to end the anarchy. "Why don't our political and security leaders admit that the police have become a force that serves families and that some families have their own police forces?" he asked. "The police need a clear and firm order to fight crime and confiscate weapons."
Former PA minister Muhammad Dahlan, who is also a senior member of Fatah, lashed out at the veteran Fatah leadership, holding it responsible for the state of lawlessness and anarchy. "There are some who want to destroy the credibility of the Palestinian Authority to serve their narrow and private interests," he said.
Dahlan accused Fatah leaders of standing behind reports that the current circumstances were inappropriate for holding the parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 25.
Senior US officials Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser, the deputy national security adviser, and David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, are scheduled to arrive Thursday for discussions with Israeli and PA officials about the upcoming PA elections and the prospects for the day after.
The two are scheduled to meet Thursday with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Among the issues to be discussed with Israeli officials are the modalities of the election in east Jerusalem, as well as Hamas participation in the elections and how to treat the organization the day after.
A White House spokesman said earlier this week that the US wanted to see arrangements made so that east Jerusalem Arabs could vote. Israel has not yet made public its decision whether east Jerusalem Arabs will be able to vote in post offices in the city, as was done in the two previous PA elections, and is expected to make a decision after consulting with Abrams and Welch.
Regarding Hamas, senior Israeli diplomatic officials said they expected that the US would fulfill its commitment not to deal with the organization after the elections - regardless of the results - unless it disarmed and repealed its charter calling for Israel's destruction.
Herb Keinon, Orly Halpern and AP contributed to this report.