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Minor progress in standoff, siege

©Associated Press
April 26, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Nine young Palestinians, wearing masks against the stench, emerged from the Church of the Nativity on Thursday carrying the rotting corpses of two Palestinian policemen in makeshift wooden coffins.

It was a small breakthrough in the three-week standoff at one of Christianity's holiest shrines, where 30 gunmen are among more than 200 Palestinians holed up and surrounded by Israeli troops.

In nearby Ramallah, where Israeli troops are just outside the door of Yasser Arafat's offices, the Palestinians inside announced a court run by a judge and lawyers with little or no legal experience had convicted four Palestinians for the murder of an Israeli Cabinet minister. The proceedings were clearly intended to help bring an end to the Israeli siege.

At the United Nations, U.N. officials responded to an Israeli demand by adding two more military officers to a U.N. fact-finding mission that will look into the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp.

Seven Palestinians were reported killed in various incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the latest death, Palestinians said a woman was shot and killed by Israeli forces early today near the Gaza-Egypt border. The Israeli military said Palestinians attacked Israeli soldiers with gunfire, grenades and a mortar shell in a battle that lasted for several hours.

But developments surrounding the confrontations in Bethlehem and Ramallah marked the most substantial progress in days, if not weeks, though both sides remained at odds on core issues.

Israel wants to arrest or deport the gunmen in the Church of the Nativity and demands custody of the men convicted of killing Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was considering allowing Arafat to leave his shattered West Bank headquarters for Gaza if the Palestinian leader agrees to use his intact security force in the southern Palestinian enclave to crack down on militants. Sharon aide Danny Ayalon said the offer had not been proposed formally to Arafat.

In Bethlehem, nine young Palestinians, ages 14 to 20, deposited the two bodies, which had been decomposing inside the church since early in the standoff, in Manger Square. Israeli soldiers inspected the remains, which were taken away by a Palestinian ambulance. Israeli soldiers threw smoke bombs to block the view of journalists. Israeli authorities immediately took the nine for questioning.

"These are not among the group of wanted gunmen," army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said. "Now they're being fed. The army is providing them with food and water."

The youths entered the church looking for relatives or friends shortly after the standoff began April 2, Palestinians said.

Mohammed Habib, 15, said the most acute problem inside the church was a shortage of food. He said that besides food, the things he missed the most during 23 days of siege were a pen and paper, and his mother's cooking.

He said Israeli soldiers questioned him and the others about the militants in the church. An Israeli army officer said the nine would be released this morning.

Angered by what they considered the arrest of the youths, Palestinian negotiators broke off further talks with Israelis until they're freed. Talks held earlier in the day broke up with no official report of progress. However, Israel Radio said the sides did make headway but did not elaborate. Palestinians said one negotiator had received permission from Israel to travel to Ramallah to brief Arafat.

Arafat will have to sign off on any agreement, say Palestinians, who have proposed sending the wanted men in the church to Gaza.

The Israelis say they want to put them on trial or permanently expel them. The Israelis have suggested the men could be sent to Egypt, Palestinians close to the negotiations say.

Meanwhile, the inside of Arafat's shell-shattered compound was turned into a courtroom for the quick trial that led to the convictions of the Palestinian men, said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior Arafat aide. Palestinian officials appointed a judge and lawyers from those in Arafat's compound.

Hamdi Quran, convicted of shooting Zeevi, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and his lookout, Basel Al-Asmar, to 12 years. Getaway driver Majdi Rimawi got an eight-year term, and Ahead Gholmy was sentenced to one year for having knowledge of the plot but not informing Palestinian authorities.

Under interim peace accords, Palestinians are to extradite suspects to Israel -- unless they are tried in Palestinian courts.

Sharon dismissed Thursday's action, insisting the men "be brought to trial in Israel." Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer called it "the best show in town."

Also Thursday, Israel allowed the governor of Ramallah to leave Arafat's compound, Palestinian sources said.

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