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Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip yesterday fired two mortar rounds at Israel Defense Forces soldiers near the border, Israel Radio reported. IDF troops operating in the Kissufim area identified the source of the rocket fire and opened fire in the direction of the launchers across the border.

The strikes came amid an apparent stalemate in Gaza Strip truce negotiations, following Israel's demand that a cease-fire be linked to the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Egypt opens Rafah crossing

Meanwhile, Egypt yesterday opened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to let students, third-country residents and medical patients stranded in the Strip cross the usually closed frontier.

Spokesman Adel Zourab said yesterday that Egypt had agreed to allow 500 students studying abroad and 500 others with valid residency permits for Egypt or other countries to pass through the border crossing. He also said that 800 medical cases would be allowed to cross today.

Egypt sealed the border after Islamic Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007. It has occasionally opened the passage for limited periods.

European monitors yesterday said they are ready to resume their assignment on the Gaza-Egypt border at a moment's notice, following an involuntary 20-month break, the head of the mission said.

In the past two weeks, 20 monitors returned to the region amid reports of progress on a Palestinian power-sharing agreement and an Israel-Hamas prisoner swap - prerequisites for reopening the Gaza-Egypt border. For months, the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) had operated with a scaled-back staff of 18.

"We are waiting for all parties to agree," mission chief Col. Alain Faugeras said in an interview Friday.

The European monitors were deployed at the Rafah passenger terminal between Gaza and Egypt as part of a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas. The monitors were to reassure Israel that weapons and militants wouldn't get into Gaza after its pullout from the territory in the fall of 2005.

Israel has kept its crossings with Gaza closed. Rafah is Gaza's main gateway to the outside world.

Five die in smugglers' tunnel

Also yesterday, Gaza medics said five Palestinians have been found dead in a smuggling tunnel under the border with Egypt.

Health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said the men suffocated in the cramped, makeshift tunnel.

Local residents say they were smuggling food into the Strip, which has been under a crippling blockade since Hamas seized control.

Hassanain said the men died Saturday, but were only found yesterday.

Halting Gaza's smuggling is a key issue in negotiations for a stable truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers. The tunnels are used to smuggle food and consumer products, but also to run arms.