Israelis lock down West Bank

Tanks enter Nablus

army surrounds Church of Nativity

Vatican tries to mediate

Up to 200 trapped fighters and priests, nuns and journalists

April 04, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel expanded its lethal war on terror last night, sending tanks roaring into Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, as troops laid siege to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity for a second day.

With the advance of perhaps 300 Israeli tanks and other vehicles into Nablus, only two large West Bank towns - Hebron and Jericho - remained under Palestinian control.

The tense standoff at the sixth-century Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, began after Palestinian gunmen barricaded themselves inside and pursuing Israeli soldiers surrounded them.

An army spokesman said that there were no immediate plans to storm the church, which Christians believe was built on the birthplace of Jesus.

Israeli forces invaded the West Bank on Friday after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 26 Israelis at a Seder on the first day of Passover, and more incursions are likely amid Israel's largest military operation since the invasion of Lebanon two decades ago.

Though negotiations were reportedly under way with local and Vatican officials to end the church siege peacefully, the standoff has created a dilemma for the Israeli army. The military desperately wants to capture the gunmen while maintaining its vow to "not shoot at sacred places" and avoiding an assault on a shrine full of priests and nuns.

"We do not want to actively invade in a military way," said Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the army's chief spokesman. "But we definitely want to search the church, with the kind assistance of the people who are in charge there."

Reached by telephone inside the church, a Greek Orthodox priest who is tending to the gunmen said he is duty bound to help those who seek sanctuary.

"It is the duty of the church to protect and prevent people from being massacred," Father Parthenius said. "We cannot ask them to leave because they are going to be killed, and it is a mortal sin to send people out to get killed."

Up to 200 people are inside, including dozens of fighters, priests, monks, nuns and Italian journalists.

Kitrey questioned why the priests appear to be helping the militants. "There are many innocent people inside the church," he said. "They are not coming out, and we don't know why."

Parthenius said occupants are running out of food. He described the fighters as initially "very agitated and nervous, but they have calmed down. They respect us fully and listen to us carefully and obey whatever we say."

Neither side has shot at the other during the siege. But witnesses said the militants shot their way into the church Tuesday to escape a protracted battle with Israeli troops and pushed away priests who tried to keep them out.

Palestinian officials said only a handful of gunmen were among the people who took sanctuary inside the church to escape the gunfire that has ravaged the city, six miles south of Jerusalem.

Father Raed Abu Sahlia, a spokesman for Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the Vatican's representative in the Holy Land, lashed out angrily at Israel's armed forces. He described the gunmen as refugees.

"They asked for refuge inside the Church of the Nativity," said Abu Sahlia, who is in contact with the Vatican and Israelis officials to resolve the standoff. "They have fled the military zones because they know that the church is a holy place and that it is safe."

Italian television journalist Marc Innaro, who has been trapped inside the church complex since Tuesday, said in a phone interview that nearly all of the Palestinians inside are gunmen who shot the locks off an iron gate to get in.

Innaro, who works for the RAI television network, had taken refuge in the monastery on the church grounds during the intense fighting. About three hours later, he said, a fierce gunfight erupted in Manger Square between soldiers and up to 200 Palestinians.

He said the gunmen forced their way into the monastery, questioned him and his crew, and then took refuge inside the adjacent Church of the Nativity. Exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, they spent the night clutching their weapons and sprawled on the ancient stone floor and in the pews over the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born. About 30 priests and nuns fed them and treated the two dozen wounded.

"I want to stress that we are not hostages," Innaro said.

Israel's incursion into Bethlehem and has put the Christian Church in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abu Sahlia said representatives are trying to help negotiate a permanent cease-fire, and he urged that "this madness stop from both sides."

"Political leaders for Israel and the Palestinians are blind and deaf," he said. "They don't see the reality that war will bring nothing more than blood, destruction, hate and revenge. It's time for moral people to show them a peaceful way."

In Washington, President Bush repeated his support for the Israeli assault. "He understands and respects Israel's right to defend herself," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

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