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THE MIDDLE EAST

Militants and Israelis Trade Accusations in Church Siege

Bethlehem: Troops killed a bell ringer and are advancing into the compound, Palestinians say. The military claims that gunmen opened fire without provocation.

April 05, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The war of nerves and guns at the Church of the Nativity heated up Thursday: Palestinians accused Israeli troops of killing a mentally impaired bell ringer and advancing into the church compound, while the Israelis said that Palestinians barricaded inside fired on them without provocation.

An eruption of gunfire and explosions shortly after midnight Thursday was an ominous development in the standoff at the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, a confrontation full of the near-biblical fury and tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The siege began Tuesday during an Israeli military incursion into Bethlehem. About 200 Palestinians--at least 100 armed fighters and a number of Palestinian Authority officials and civilians--took refuge in the compound housing the Church of the Nativity and adjacent Roman Catholic and Armenian houses of worship.

Tensions escalated steadily Thursday. The Palestinians said the Israelis were tightening the military vise around them in preparation for an attack. About 1 a.m. today, Bethlehem Gov. Mohammed Madani said by telephone from inside St. Catherine's church next to the Church of the Nativity that he had heard four explosions and sustained gunfire. Israeli soldiers had entered the east courtyard of the compound, Madani said.

In response, an Israeli military spokesman said the Palestinians had opened fire after midnight. But the Israelis did not return fire, in order to protect the church and the dozens of clerics inside, he said.

"The shooting is coming from inside the church at Israeli soldiers, who are not responding," said Marcus Scheff, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. He said he didn't know whether soldiers had entered the compound but added, "I believe they are holding position."

Both sides insist that they deeply respect the hallowed ground over which they are pointing weapons at each other.

"We will never shoot except to defend the dignity of the church, the priests and ourselves," said a barricaded fighter named Abu Hatem, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia who was reached Thursday evening by cell phone. "There will be a massacre written in history if the Israelis break into the church. We have enough ammunition to kill a lot of them."

An Israeli commander said Thursday that his officers relayed offers of food, medicine and medical care to the gunmen through Palestinian leaders acting as intermediaries. But the barricaded members of militant groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Tanzim rebuffed the offers, said Col. Marcel Aviv, chief of the Bethlehem area for the Israeli army.

"The Israel Defense Forces wishes for a peaceful resolution to the situation," Aviv told reporters. "We have one mission: to get all the terrorists and the priests out with no casualties, I hope."

Meanwhile, Bethlehem was the scene of another day of shooting and movements of troops and armored vehicles.

Young Israeli soldiers with rifles at the ready conducted house-to-house searches in a warren of debris-choked streets a few blocks from the standoff.

The fighting and a military curfew made it difficult to confirm the day's accusations and counter-accusations. Sometimes at gunpoint and sometimes politely, Israeli soldiers ordered away journalists making their way toward the siege at Manger Square.

About midday Thursday, a loud explosion went off near the Church of the Nativity. Palestinian sources and priests said the Israelis had used charges to blow open a side gate in the southern wall of the compound by Milk Grotto Street--so named because the Bible says the Virgin Mary nursed the infant Jesus there.

The men inside said the blast was a prelude to an attempt to storm the church.

"The explosion was really noisy," Bassem abu Odeh, 17, said. By telephone, he said he had taken refuge with several monks in the underground grotto that marks the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Aviv said the explosion occurred during an operation at a nearby house where Israeli soldiers sought to flush out terrorists. He denied that the military had used explosives on the door of the church but didn't address the question of an explosion at the church compound's side gate.

Israeli troops broadcast several appeals over loudspeakers calling on their enemies to surrender.

"They were telling us, 'Come outside, we are not going to shoot you,' " Odeh said. "But we know that anybody who goes outside will be killed."

That, according to Palestinians and priests, is what happened to Samir Abraham Salman, a mentally impaired former altar boy and longtime employee at the Church of the Nativity. Salman worked as a bell ringer and cleanup man, according to a Greek Orthodox priest named Father Parthenius. Salman was 45, sources said.

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