5 able to leave church

Bethlehem siege goes on

Negotiations continue to avoid Israeli assault

April 07, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Two Greek Orthodox priests, a nun and two other women were spirited away from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday, where a standoff between armed Palestinian militants and the Israeli army continued into its fifth day.

The clergy members emerged shaken and silent from a large armored army vehicle that sped from the church, through an Israeli military checkpoint lined with tanks preparing for battle, and into Jerusalem.

It was the second consecutive day that people have gotten out of the fortress-like church in Manger Square, taken over by between 120 and 240 men who shot their way inside last week to escape advancing Israeli soldiers.

Negotiations were continuing around the clock to peacefully end the siege and avoid an army assault on the church, which would spark condemnation from Christians across the world and cause significant public relations damage to Israel.

But the standoff of guns has also produced a standoff of words. The army describes the priests as hostages, while the church insists that the priests gave the gunmen sanctuary and that they are free to leave.

Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman, said the 60 or so priests inside the church, who have been communicating through cellular phones, are not able to speak freely.

"When you have 200 guns to your head, you say what they want," he said.

The Palestinians in the church and Vatican officials in Rome accuse the Israelis of fabricating a hostage drama to justify attacking the shrine, built over the stone grotto where tradition holds that Jesus was born.

And the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem vowed yesterday that neither he nor any of the other Palestinians holed up would leave until Israel troops ended their siege, The New York Times reported.

People inside described the situation as grave, with food supplies down to two days.

Priests were conducting Mass as scheduled, in the Nativity Church and the adjacent St. Catherine's, and some of the Christian gunmen were participating.

"God only knows what is going to happen in the upcoming hours," said Anton Salman, a Palestinian lawyer who went to the church with Bethlehem Gov. Muhamad al-Maadani to negotiate a solution.

Salman said many of the gunmen are hiding in the monastery, and up to 20 wounded fighters are lying in the sixth-century church. One man's injuries were described as critical.

The Israeli army has prevented reporters, including those in Bethlehem, from reaching Manger Square, the scene of fierce fighting in recent days, and independent verification has been impossible. The people who have emerged from the church have not made independent public statements.

Rafowicz would not say how the five people had gotten out of the church. He indicated that soldiers had secretly helped them escape, but he declined to describe the apparent operation in detail.

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