Negotiators show hope church crisis near end

Plan appears in works, but details unresolved


BETHLEHEM, West Bank - A monthlong standoff between the Israeli army and Palestinians holed up inside this city's venerated Church of the Nativity appeared to be nearing an end early today, with negotiators expressing cautious hope that the crisis might soon be resolved.

A top aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met yesterday with Israeli and U.S. officials for intensive talks aimed at breaking the siege, which began April 2. More than 200 Palestinians took shelter in the church when Israeli troops entered Bethlehem as part of their West Bank offensive.

More than 150 people, including civilians, police and gunmen, are believed to remain inside, encircled by the army. The Israelis demand that a number of wanted men in the church surrender to face trial in Israel or go into exile. The Palestinians have insisted that the men be sent to the Gaza Strip.

After 34 days, the situation inside the church has become increasingly difficult, with food and medicine running very low.

Supplies brought in by activists who entered the church Thursday were nearly gone.

The first news of a possible deal was greeted early yesterday with relief and hope inside the 4th-century basilica. People began to organize their belongings, and took turns washing themselves and cleaning their clothes.

At dusk yesterday, Israeli soldiers near the church appeared to be preparing to lift the siege, setting up powerful overhead lights and moving the barbed wire and other barricades that for more than a month have blocked access to the shrine and adjoining Manger Square.

Palestinians speaking by telephone from inside the church said they had compiled a list of about 130 names of those holed up there and turned it over to a European envoy to convey to Palestinian negotiators. The tally was not believed to include a number of priests, monks and nuns who have remained in the church throughout the siege, or a group of activists who eluded Israeli troops Thursday.

Early today, however, Palestinians, Israelis and others close to the negotiations said that while an agreement appeared to be in the works, many details were unresolved.

But the urgent need for a resolution was demonstrated again yesterday when a Palestinian in the church compound was shot by an Israeli sniper. The man, identified as Khalaf Najazeh, 40, was a militant wanted by Israel and was spotted carrying a gun, an Israeli army spokesman said. Najazeh, who later died at an Israeli hospital, was the seventh to be killed by Israel since the standoff began, the spokesman said.

The army also said it had discovered a bomb-making factory in a medical clinic a few hundred yards from the church.

Arafat has said that it is his top priority to end the standoff in Bethlehem.

The Palestinian leader was said to be overseeing yesterday's negotiations himself, and had dispatched his financial adviser Mohammed Rashid, to lead the Palestinian side.

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