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Egypt police clash with Gaza relief convoy members

ARISH, Egypt (Reuters) - Egyptian security forces clashed on Wednesday with members of a convoy led by left-wing British politician George Galloway trying to take relief supplies to Palestinians in the Gaza strip.

A Reuters correspondent in the port city of Arish, 40 km (25 miles) from Egypt’s border with Gaza, saw security forces throwing stones at about 520 people traveling with the convoy.

The convoy has been locked in a dispute with Egyptian authorities over the route of the 198 trucks.

Police used water cannon to force the protesters to leave Arish harbor, which they had occupied, a security source said. Around 40 members of the convoy had minor injuries while around 15 police officials were hurt, witnesses said.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry said protesters had broken a gate into the port complex, while others scaled its walls.

Some of the protesters “lit cardboard boxes and prevented firemen from reaching them and moved cars from the convoy to block the port gate,” the ministry said in a statement published by Egypt’s official news agency MENA.

The activists struck a deal with police to trade four police officers who had been held by the protesters for a few hours in exchange for seven members of the convoy detained by police.

Cairo insists the food and other supplies should go to Gaza via an Israeli-controlled checkpoint while the convoy’s leaders want to use the Egyptian-controlled Rafah border crossing.

Egyptian authorities wanted 55 of the trucks to go to the Israeli checkpoint, said Galloway, the sole member of the British parliament for the Respect party, who has long campaigned for the Palestinian cause.

“We refused this,” he told Reuters TV. “It is completely unconscionable that 25 percent of our convoy should go to Israel and never arrive in Gaza. Because nothing that ever goes to Israel ever arrives in Gaza.”

Cairo has imposed strict regulations and restrictions on pro-Palestinian foreign activists who have held protests in Egypt since late December to mark the first anniversary of Israel’s three-week offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

It has also controlled the movement of Palestinians and some foreigners at Rafah and is building a controversial steel wall along its border with Gaza to prevent smuggling.

Alhamy Aref, a local government official in North Sinai, was trying to negotiate a deal between the two sides on releasing the detained people.

Leaders of the convoy originally refused Egypt’s condition that the aid should be shipped via Arish on the Mediterranean rather than via the Red Sea port of Nuweiba. But they later relented and started arriving at Arish on Thursday.

Writing by Yasmine Saleh; Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Editing by Charles Dick