INTERVIEW-Egypt flooded tunnels to cut Gaza arms flow -aide

Reuters Middle East

* Two-way arms smuggling threatens Egypt's security-aide

* Gazans are receiving needed goods without tunnels

* Egypt concerned about Sinai lawlessness, Libya arms

CAIRO, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Egypt will not tolerate a two-way

flow of smuggled arms with the Gaza Strip that is destabilising

its Sinai peninsula, a senior aide to its Islamist president

said, explaining why Egyptian forces flooded sub-border tunnels

last week.

The network of tunnels has been a lifeline for some 1.7

million Palestinians in Gaza, bringing in an estimated 30

percent of all goods that reach the enclave and circumventing a

blockade imposed by Israel for more than seven years.

But Essam Haddad, national security adviser to President

Mohamed Mursi told Reuters in an interview: "We don't want to

see these tunnels used for illegal ways of smuggling either

people or weapons that can really harm Egyptian security."

 He said that under a deal brokered by Cairo to end fighting

in November between Israel and the Hamas movement that rules the

Gaza Strip, the Israeli stranglehold on the coastal territory

had been considerably relaxed. Egypt has eased border controls

to allow in construction materials, notably from Qatar.

"Now we can say that the borders are open to a good extent -

it could still be improved - and the needs of the Gazan people

are allowed in. Building materials are allowed in for the first

time," Haddad said.

"And on the other side, we would not like to see arms

smuggled through these tunnels either in or out, because we are

now seeing in Sinai and we have captured actually across Egypt

heavy arms that could be used in a very dangerous way."

Sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed last August in a

militant attack in Sinai near the Gaza fence that shocked

Egyptians and highlighted lawlessness in the desert region

adjoining Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Cairo said some of those gunmen had crossed into Egypt via

the Gaza tunnels - an accusation denied by the Palestinians.

Dozens of tunnels have been destroyed since that incident.

Last Friday, Egypt said it had seized two tons of explosives

hidden in a truck carrying a shipment of fruit and vegetables

bound for Sinai. In January, Egypt seized six anti-aircraft and

anti-tank rockets in the peninsula that smugglers may have

intended to send to Gaza.

WEAPONS SMUGGLING INCREASED

Despite the flooding of the tunnels, which sparked bitter

complaints from Palestinians, Haddad said relations with Hamas,

ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood movement now

ruling in Cairo, were good.

Egypt has been trying, so far without success, to coax Hamas

and the Fatah nationalist movement that runs the Palestinian

Authority which controls the West Bank to agree on a national

unity government and elections.

But Haddad made clear that President Mohamed Mursi would

scrupulously respect Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and

that daily cooperation with the Jewish state continued as

normal, even though there were no contacts at a presidential

level.

An Israeli security delegation visited Cairo for talks last

week and two Israeli warships passed through the Suez Canal, one

flying the Star of David flag for the first time in years.

Asked whether he saw a threat to Egyptian security from al

Qaeda Islamist militants, Haddad said a structured al Qaeda

network with its connections and operations did not exist in

Egypt. But its extremist ideology knew no borders.

"Everybody has noticed that since the collapse of (former

Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi's army, the amount of weapons

smuggling across the whole region has really increased

dramatically," he said.

"This is something that is really alarming because you don't

know who will be getting these arms. And when you see there are

anti-aircraft missiles inside Egypt and anti-tank weapons inside

Egypt ... you will question who is doing this and why.

"That is why we want to strengthen our western border,"

Haddad said, adding that this was the government's top security

priority now.

Egyptian security authorities are still investigating

whether a militant cell arrested in Cairo this month had links

to an al Qaeda network.

(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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