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Blasts boom, sirens wail at besieged church

©Associated Press
April 17, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Outside the Church of the Nativity, the nerve-jangling sound of sirens blares from Israeli speakers. Inside, the corpses of two Palestinian police officers are decaying.

The Muslim Palestinian gunmen who dashed into the church two weeks ago, firing wildly at pursuing Israeli troops, now accuse Israel of violating the sanctity of the fourth century religious shrine.

Israel insists it won't storm the building, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the siege could last indefinitely.

With each passing day, things get a little more strange at the weather-beaten stone church built on the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Heavy shooting erupted Tuesday night, with tracer bullets lighting up the sky. Explosions, apparently caused by stun grenades, rose from the compound that includes the church and several other ancient buildings.

Israel said there was an exchange of fire; the Palestinians said the Israeli troops fired without provocation. One casualty was reported, a man in nearby Beit Sahour who was slightly injured in the leg from a stray bullet.

President Bush told Sharon on Monday that ending the siege is one of the top priorities of visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Vatican also has been involved in negotiations to end the impasse, as well as leaders of the many Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical churches in Jerusalem.

About 250 Palestinians are holed up in the church, many of them armed, along with 60 members of the clergy.

Israel says it wants to arrest about 30 of the gunmen.

"Hopefully this will last for only a few more days," Israeli Maj. Tal Ravlan said at the Star Hotel, about a half-mile from the compound.

The army has commandeered the hotel's top floor, shooing away journalists who had been using the rooftop to keep an eye on the church.

"This place has been here 1,700 years. The (Israeli army) would not like to harm such a holy place," Ravlan said.

Despite the Israeli pledge, the policemen and gunmen keep constant vigil.

"We expect the Israeli army will storm the church," said Mohammed Madni, the governor of Bethlehem and one of a small number of Palestinian civilians inside.

In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, he described the situation in the church as "extremely difficult."

Dwindling food supplies permit a single daily meal, a noontime helping of rice, potatoes or spaghetti. Most people are sleeping on the floor. There aren't enough showers for everyone to bathe regularly.

Israel has stepped up the pressure in recent days by erecting a crane near the church and attaching speakers. In addition to the siren sounds, which wail late into the night, the Israelis periodically broadcast pleas to surrender.

Few people have done so. Of those, two came out Monday, a police officer who had been shot in the abdomen several days earlier and a civilian who was apparently suffering a nervous breakdown.

Sharon said Tuesday that the Palestinians had backed out of a compromise under which the gunmen would surrender, and then be placed on trial or sent into permanent exile.

However, no Palestinian official ever publicly endorsed the proposal, and some lower-level Palestinians, such as police officers inside the church, adamantly rejected it. The Palestinians are demanding the Israelis withdraw and the gunmen be allowed to go free.

The standoff began April 2 when Israeli tanks and troops closed in on Palestinian gunmen gathered at Manger Square, next to the church compound. Palestinians raced inside, firing automatic rifles at the Israelis.

Since then, two Palestinian police officers have been shot dead inside the compound, as well as the church's longtime bell ringer, killed as he was walking on the streets outside.

The body of one of the officers rests in a makeshift wooden coffin that's now inside a grotto at St. Catherine's Church, part of the compound. A second Palestinian police officer was shot dead Saturday night, and his body has been covered with blankets and placed in a room at St. Catherine's, Palestinians said.

At least 10 people inside are suffering from gunshot wounds, and have received only rudimentary treatment, much of it carried out by a Franciscan nun who is also a nurse.

Bethlehem remains under curfew, and the streets are empty except for the Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers, some of which are parked within 100 yards of the church. In the periodic bursts of gunfire, both sides have accused the other of firing first.

A door at the Church of the Nativity was damaged by Israeli fire, and walls and windows at the compound have also been hit. But there has not been damage on the scale that occurred at Bethlehem's Old City, where many buildings and shops have been badly hit.

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