Egypt to Bolster Gaza Border

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 7, 2008

CAIRO, Jan. 6 -- Egypt has agreed to spend $23 million in U.S. military aid on robots and other advanced technology to detect smuggling tunnels along its border with the Gaza Strip, a U.S. congressman said Sunday.

Egypt also has accepted a U.S. offer to send experts from the Army Corps of Engineers to train Egyptian border guards in the technology, said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

The United States offered the technology and training in an effort to defuse tensions between Egypt and Israel over Egypt's control of its Sinai border with Gaza. Congress voted last month to withhold $100 million in U.S. military aid to Egypt until the country intensifies policing of the border.

Israeli officials accuse Egypt of allowing smugglers to ferry arms and other goods to the Palestinian movement Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since June.

Egyptians deny that large amounts of weapons are being moved through the tunnels and place much of the blame for the smuggling on Israeli-Egyptian accords limiting the number of security personnel Egypt can keep on the border. Egypt has urged Israel to reopen negotiations on that limit.

The New York congressman, in Egypt as part of a Middle East tour, said the equipment includes unmanned ground vehicles and acoustic sensors.

Another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the unmanned vehicles as robots.

Specialists from the Army Corps of Engineers are expected to spend about two months training Egyptian border workers, the congressman said.

"With the Army Corps equipment, with the sustained U.S. technical advice, this should make a big difference in closing these tunnels, and take the tunnels off the table in future appropriations debates," Israel said by telephone.

An Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said late Sunday that "there is an endeavor of the sort. It hasn't really materialized yet."

The official acknowledged that the congressman had urged Egypt to allow the Army Corps to help it monitor the border long-term. "That's an issue of a tentative nature," the official said.

Accusations over smuggling have raised tensions between Israel and Egypt as President Bush is due to arrive in the region this week on the first extended Middle East tour of his presidency.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni outraged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last month when she declared that Egypt was doing a "terrible" job of controlling its border with Gaza. Mubarak said afterward that Livni "has crossed a line with me."

Israel, the New York congressman, spoke Sunday after a three-hour meeting with Mubarak.

"There's a lot of tension here," he said. "I'm hopeful that the volume will be turned down."

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