RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Hundreds of Palestinians crossed into Egypt on Wednesday after militants, angry at the jailing of their leader, stole two bulldozers and smashed through the wall separating Gaza and Egypt.
The militants rammed the wall hours after they blocked the official border crossing and took over government buildings.
As many as 300 Palestinians crossed into Egypt after the wall was smashed, an Egyptian security official said. Brig. Adel Fawzi, director of criminal investigation for North Sinai, said border police were unable to stop the intruders because they had no orders to shoot.
Thousands of Egyptian Interior Ministry troops headed to the border. An Egyptian armored vehicle was set on fire and at least three Palestinians were reported injured, one seriously when an Egyptian troop carrier crushed him against a wall, witnesses said.
The militants belong to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party. They rammed the massive wall as a show of force against the Palestinian Authority.
The militants' rampage through the southern Gaza town of Rafah underscored the growing lawlessness in Palestinian towns, especially in Gaza. Abbas, who has condemned the chaos, has been unable to impose order, and his failure to keep the gunmen in check is expected to harm Fatah's prospects in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.
Fatah-affiliated vigilantes demanding government jobs or the release of imprisoned friends have been responsible for much of the anarchy, particularly since Israel's pullout from Gaza in September.
The tightly run Islamic militant group Hamas, whose followers have rarely been involved in vigilante violence, is expected to do well in the vote against the corruption-tainted Fatah. Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel, has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks.
The latest rampage began Tuesday, when Palestinian intelligence arrested Al Aqsa militant Alaa al-Hams on suspicion he and his followers kidnapped British human rights activist Kate Burton and her parents for two days last week. The Burtons were among 19 foreigners abducted by Fatah gunmen in Gaza in recent months. All have been freed unharmed.
Al-Hams followers then fired at the Palestinian security headquarters in the southern town of Rafah where he was held. Police and gunmen fired in the air, but there were no injuries.
On Wednesday morning, some 40 masked gunmen took over the central election office in Rafah, the local branch of the Palestinian parliament, a court and another government building. Gunmen were seen on rooftops, inside the buildings and posted at the main doors. Most workers fled.
A truckload of gunmen then drove to the nearby Rafah border crossing with Egypt, Gaza's main gate to the world.
Firing in the air, they closed the entrance gate to the crossing compound and told waiting passengers to leave. They also set up an impromptu checkpoint at the access road to the crossing, turning away travelers.
They left the buildings and the crossing after three hours.
But hours later, with al-Hams still in jail, the militants stole two bulldozers in Rafah and headed for the massive wall, which keeps Palestinians out of the Philadelphi corridor next to a smaller wall that marks the official border with Egypt.
"We are going to do everything we can to pressure the authority to release our leader," said an Al Aqsa leader who gave his name as Abu Hassan.
The bulldozers smashed two holes at the same spot where Hamas militants blasted through the towering concrete barrier during the border chaos following Israel's Gaza pullout. Palestinian security officials had closed the earlier hole with heavy concrete blocks, but those quickly gave way before the bulldozer.
Hundreds of Palestinians swarmed into the border corridor.
"Many people walked through. The Palestinian police can't stop them," said Fawzi Shaheen, a 26-year-old Rafah resident who ran toward the border.
The Rafah crossing was handed to Palestinian control, under European supervision, as part of a U.S.-brokered deal with Israel last month. Since then, the crossing was forced to shut down several times during attacks by gunmen.
Israel threatened to close the Rafah crossing in coordination with European observers if the breach is not repaired, according to a Defense Ministry complaint sent to the United States and the Palestinians, the ministry said. In the message, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz expressed grave concern over the development.
Salima Abu Maghaseeb, 42, said she was angry over the disruption of her plans to travel to Egypt with her daughter for her daughter's wedding this week.
"I don't know why the Palestinian Authority is allowing them to do this," said Abu Maghaseeb, who had her documents checked at the impromptu roadblock. "Those people should use their guns ... to protect people and not to come and terrify us. God only knows what the future holds for Gaza."
A spokesman for the European observers, Julio de la Guardia, said the disruptions outside the crossing were an internal Palestinian matter.
"Our functioning at the border crossing has not been disturbed," he said.
In other chaos, Palestinian gunmen burst into a Rafah house early Wednesday and tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie, an American who was killed in 2003 as she protested the impending demolition of a house in the southern Gaza town, according to a witness.
The five gunmen appeared to be affiliated with the ruling Fatah movement, according to Samir Nasrallah, the Corries' host, but it was not clear if they were from the same group that blockaded the border. The gunmen eventually relented after being told who their targets were, he said.
Corrie, of Olympia, Wash., was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to stop it from demolishing Nasrallah's house. Her parents, Craig and Cindy, have repeatedly visited Nasrallah since their daughter's death. They left Gaza safely after the attempted kidnapping, Nasrallah said.
Also, Israeli opposition lawmakers demanded authorities quickly finish an investigation into new bribery allegations against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and announce the results before Israel's March 28 elections.
Accusations of corruption against Sharon first surfaced before the 2003 election. The scandal erupted again late Tuesday when Channel 10 TV reported that police had evidence that Sharon's family received $3 million in bribes from an Austrian businessman who owns a casino in the West Bank town of Jericho.
"Either this cloud of suspicion will evaporate or it will lead to an indictment, but one of the two has to happen and, therefore, I have talked to the attorney general. He has to decide before the election," Labor lawmaker Ofir Pines-Paz told Israel Radio.
The Justice Ministry declined to comment. Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld declined to say whether the probe could be completed in the coming months.
Vice Premier Ehud Olmert dismissed the allegations Wednesday as "not serious."
Police have investigated several cases involving Sharon and his sons, Omri and Gilad, but the prime minister has not been charged. Omri Sharon resigned from parliament Tuesday after being convicted of violating campaign funding laws.