Egypt has begun building an underground wall up to 100ft deep along its border with the Gaza strip to block tunnels used to smuggle contraband and weapons, it has been claimed.
Residents of Rafah, the border town which has become the centre for a major smuggling operation, say engineers have brought in earth moving-equipment and are placing deep steel tubes at short intervals into the ground.
The government has not confirmed the claims but one security source said the plan was to build a blast-proof, impenetrable steel wall of adjoining two inch thick sheets across stretches of the frontier known to be used by smugglers.
Another official said engineers were installing tunnel detection equipment along the border, which is about seven miles long. He refused to confirm that a wall was also being planned.
Both Israel and Egypt have made strenuous efforts to counter the tunnels, built since Israel began to enforce a semi-blockade of Gaza after it was seized by the Islamist movement Hamas in 2007.
It allows some basic supplies through, while Egypt opens the Rafah crossing once a month for up to three days to allow people to cross.
The construction of a wall would renew vociferous criticism Egypt has endured from parts of the Middle East for being complicit in Israeli policies.
Egypt refused to open the border even during the Israeli attack on Gaza last winter, and has also arrested alleged Hizbollah sympathisers, among other things for trying to infiltrate weapons into Gaza from Egyptian territory.
Attempts by its border guards to close off tunnels, and even Israeli bombing raids, have failed to prevent a thriving trade, which is overseen by Hamas. New tunnels are built as others are discovered.
A wall, however, would be a different matter and would throttle the Gazan economy even further.
The first security source said the barrier's components were made in the United States. The project, in its six month, would take a year and a half to be completed.
"This is going to make it hard for the smugglers," said the source, who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.
An American diplomat said the United States had no involvement in any effort to build a barrier along the border.
"The US government has no role in any project on the Gaza-Egypt border that would involve a barrier or a wall," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Spokesmen for Hamas said they had no explanation for the ongoing work and were investigating.
According to local officials, the government has been generous in compensation payments to local residents whose property has been affected by the work. Witnesses say trucks have been arriving at the border laden with steel.
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