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Small breakthrough comes in church standoff

©Associated Press
May 5, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israel and the Palestinians held high-level talks Saturday to try to break the monthlong standoff at one of Christianity's holiest shrines on the eve of Orthodox Christians' Easter and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure for the United States.

Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity said by telephone that they have a list of 123 names of those in the church to give to the negotiators, a possible prelude to hammering out the fate of the wanted Palestinian militants among them.

A European envoy took the names and relayed them to the Palestinian negotiators, Palestinian officials said. Talks were taking place at an undisclosed location.

Demonstrating the continuing volatility as the standoff entered its second month, an Israeli sniper fatally wounded a militant inside the church, and the Israeli army said a Palestinian bombmaking factory was discovered about 100 yards from the compound.

The accelerated push to find a solution in Bethlehem, where the last major contingent of Israeli troops remains in the wake of a massive military offensive in the West Bank last month, came as Sharon was preparing to leave Sunday for Washington to discuss President Bush's plans for a Mideast peace conference.

Advisers said Sharon would propose that terms for a long-term interim deal with the Palestinians be arranged at a regional conference attended by Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and moderate Arab states.

Secretary of State Colin Powell announced plans for the conference Thursday with the backing of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. U.S. officials have suggested the conference will be held in June.

Israel Radio reported Saturday that the conference would be in Turkey. A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said Turkey had offered to hold it but was not aware the invitation had been accepted. Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment.

The gathering would be held at the level of foreign ministers, avoiding the issue of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's attendance. Sharon has branded Arafat a terrorist and has said he does not consider him a partner in negotiations.

The Israeli army said the Palestinian shot in Bethlehem was Halaf Najazeh, a wanted militant from Arafat's Fatah movement. He was taken to an Israeli hospital, where he died, the army said.

More than 100 people, including about 30 Palestinian gunmen, are in the church, which is ringed by Israeli forces. The standoff, which began April 2, cast a pall over Orthodox Christian celebrations of Holy Week, which culminates with Easter today, a month after the holiday was celebrated under the Western church calendar.

Carrying out an ancient pre-Easter ritual, worshipers flocked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for the lighting of the Holy Fire. The flame is hand-passed from one worshiper to another, and a lantern lighted from it was transported to Bethlehem, where Israeli soldiers allowed it to be passed to priests inside the church.

The army said the transfer had taken place successfully "despite the difficult security situation."

Throughout the deadlock, Israel has insisted that the armed men in the church surrender or accept exile. Palestinian officials have demanded they be taken to the Gaza Strip.

About 100 yards from the church, an explosion moderately wounded a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, hospital officials said. A sign outside the building described it as a medical clinic, but Israeli troops who searched it said it was an explosives laboratory.

The army showed reporters bags of gunpowder and paraphernalia indicating support for the militant Hamas group, and a collapsed wall in the building and broken glass indicated an internal explosion.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian security officer was killed at a central junction on Gaza's main road, Palestinian hospital officials said. The Israeli military said troops shot and killed a Palestinian who jumped out of a car waiting at a roadblock and fired at Israeli troops.

Palestinian security officials said troops fired without provocation, killing the man. They identified him as Ramse Eid, 25.

Arafat, released from confinement at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah last week, convened his Cabinet on Friday for the first time since Israel launched a military offensive in the West Bank on March 29.

In a statement, the Palestinian Cabinet reiterated its condemnation of terrorist attacks. The Cabinet "rejects and condemns all operations against civilians, whether Palestinians or Israelis," it said.

Arafat said he would discuss the regional conference with Arab leaders, but it was not clear whether he would attend a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo this week.

An Egyptian diplomat said the Egyptian foreign minister and President Hosni Mubarak's top adviser will meet Arafat in Ramallah today. Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Osama el-Baz, Mubarak's political adviser, will be the first Arab officials to meet Arafat since the siege on his compound ended.

The Egyptian officials will be flown aboard a Jordanian helicopter to Ramallah for a two-hour meeting with Arafat, the diplomat told the Associated Press.

Arab news reports had suggested that Arafat would visit Egypt this week, but Israelis officials have hinted that if he leaves the Palestinian territories, a new wave of suicide attacks would prompt them to block his return.

Arab nations threaten to boycott conference

CAIRO -- The 22 nations in the Arab League will not participate in a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference until Israel withdraws from lands it occupied during the latest violence with Palestinians, the league's secretary-general said Saturday.

The potential holdouts include moderate Egypt and hardline Syria, both of which said Saturday they would not attend unless Israel withdraws from lands seized since the conflict began in September 2000.

It is not known who will attend, but a U.S. official has said the invitees are expected to include parties that have shown an interest in advancing the peace process.

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