Nine Palestinians emerge from Church of Nativity

Monks escort young men carrying bodies of 2 killed weeks ago in standoff


BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Nine young Palestinians emerged from the Church of the Nativity yesterday as negotiators failed to end the three-week standoff that has trapped hundreds of people inside the renowned Christian site.

Visible through the haze of smoke bombs detonated in Manger Square by Israeli soldiers, the Palestinians - escorted by two Franciscan monks - carried coffins containing the decomposed bodies of two people killed weeks earlier.

Meanwhile, at least six Palestinians were shot to death in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a makeshift Palestinian court inside Yasser Arafat's battered compound sentenced four militants to jail for the assassination last October of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

Palestinian authorities said the guilty verdicts and jail sentences that ranged up to 18 years demonstrated their ability to punish terrorists. They also said the development should be viewed as a step toward ending the lengthy Israeli siege of Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, where the four militants were being held.

"They were brought to justice, and Israel must respect the sentences," said Saeb Erekat, a close Arafat aide.

Israeli officials quickly challenged the legitimacy of the trial, the credibility of the verdict and the ability of the Palestinians to keep the men imprisoned. Observers said neither the judge nor the lawyers had any legal training.

"I have to say, it would have been possible to avoid trying them twice, as they will anyway be brought to trial in Israel," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Israel stands by its demand for the extradition of the murderers of Minister Zeevi."

In Bethlehem, conditions inside the Church of the Nativity clearly were deteriorating.

Food and water are growing scarce and hygienic arrangements primitive. As many as 50 children were believed to be inside, along with 35 Palestinian gunmen and about 100 other people.

"There were no showers. They were urinating in plastic bottles," said Israeli Col. Olivier Rafowicz. "They were very happy to be released and be in the free world. We are very keen to have more released."

A third day of negotiations concluded without an end to the impasse, though both sides expressed guarded optimism.

"The atmosphere is good," said Mitri Abu Aitah, a Palestinian negotiator.

Said Rafowicz: "It's going well, but we still have a long way to go."

The midafternoon appearance of the two Franciscan monks and the nine youths was the largest number of people to leave the church since the stalemate began three weeks ago.

Several Israeli soldiers walked up to the nine young Palestinians and escorted them into green jeeps.

Rafowicz, the army spokesman, said the youths would be freed as early as this morning. They were given food and medical treatment, he said.

"They were very tired, very exhausted and dirty," he said.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli tanks briefly entered the West Bank city of Hebron as troops engaged in gunfights with Palestinian gunmen and searched for alleged terrorists.

A Palestinian man, identified as a member of Arafat's personal guard, reportedly was shot to death during the incursion. A Palestinian policeman was killed and another wounded near Hebron when they reportedly opened fire on Israeli soldiers.

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