Palestinian haj pilgrims protest in Egypt



Stranded Palestinian haj pilgrims, protesting at Egypt's refusal to allow them to return to Gaza through a Hamas-controlled crossing, smashed furniture and windows at a shelter on Monday, a security source said.

"There were massive protests today by hundreds of angry Palestinian pilgrims inside the shelter set up by Egyptian authorities," the source said.

The pilgrims are trying to return to Gaza after completing the annual haj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Israel insists they must all pass through Israeli security checks on the grounds that some may be carrying arms or money for the Islamist movement Hamas, which runs Gaza.

Egyptian security sources said on Monday Israel had agreed to let 100 Palestinians return to Gaza through Israel.

Most of those are among more than 1,000 Palestinian Muslim pilgrims who left the Red Sea port of Nuweiba for El Arish in North Sinai on Sunday as Egypt, Israel and Palestinian officials negotiated their return to Gaza.

They also include 28 Palestinians who have been stranded at the El Arish airport and police stations for four months because they refused to enter Gaza through Israel.

Some of the pilgrims left Gaza for Egypt through a border post outside Israeli control and say they do not want to subject themselves to Israeli checks when they go back.

Egyptian authorities tried to persuade them to spend the night in shelters at a sports complex or at a youth hostel until a decision is reached on their return. But hundreds of them, especially men, refused to stay in the shelters, spending the night outside before Monday's violence.

One pilgrim, a 67-year-old woman, died on Monday of heart problems after being taken to hospital, a security source said.

The source said the 100 Palestinians would have their papers processed at the Rafah crossing before heading to the Kerem Shalom crossing between Egypt and Israel on Egyptian buses. They would then enter Gaza through the Erez crossing in Israel.

A security source said about 350 Palestinian pilgrims had made their way to the el-Arish stadium and briefly blocked a road leading to it before police talked them into dispersing on Monday.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on Sunday he wanted to see a negotiated solution. (Reuters)

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