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Two Sides Try to Resolve Siege at Nativity Church

Mideast: Meetings yield no agreement, but Israel is reportedly studying a proposal to send wanted Palestinians to Gaza. Three men flee complex.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — With tensions reaching a critical point at the Church of the Nativity, Israelis and Palestinians met for the first time Tuesday to resolve the 3-week-old standoff here at one of Christianity's most revered sites.

Two meetings Tuesday produced no agreement on ending the siege at the site traditionally held to be Jesus' birthplace, but both sides said talks would continue today.

Palestinian negotiators proposed transferring to the Gaza Strip an estimated 20 to 30 armed men who are wanted by Israel and holed up in the church. The Israeli government, which has insisted that the men face justice in Israel or be deported, was considering the proposal, Palestinians said.

The meeting came after several Palestinians went on a rampage in the complex in a desperate search for food. Israeli soldiers around the sacred compound spotted at least two groups of armed men on the roof.

"It was positive and constructive, but the results were not great," said Salah Tamari, a local Palestinian councilman who is helping coordinate the negotiations. "They are suggesting exile to another country, which we adamantly reject." The two sides did agree to allow four ailing people out for treatment.

Israeli military officials could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Food Deliveries Have Been Restricted

More than 140 Palestinians sought refuge in the church when Israeli troops moved into Bethlehem on April 2. About 80 priests, nuns and monks were trapped inside with the Palestinians, some of whom Israel has accused of being members of militant groups such as Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Since then, Israelis have restricted food deliveries to the church compound, which is shared by several Christian faiths. Electrical and water service has been haphazard.

As a result, disagreements have mounted in recent days among different factions of the Palestinians, according to Israeli military officials and those who have recently escaped from the church. Some of them are seeking to leave the site, while others insist that they remain inside.

Growing medical problems and the lack of food drove five men to flee the compound late Sunday. Two of those men, speaking to The Times after their release from Israeli custody late Tuesday, described an atmosphere of fear and dissension in the church.

Fayez Dibs, a 23-year-old Palestinian naval police officer, said the church had been significantly damaged. He said Israeli snipers have shattered windows and pockmarked the inside walls with bullet holes. Grenades thrown inside set off two fires.

He also said that members of different branches of Palestinian security forces had begun squabbling as the small rations of food and constant harassment by the Israeli army take their toll.

"Everyone is tense now," Dibs said.

One of the most visible signs of the deteriorating situation came the day Dibs escaped, when several Palestinians stormed into the Armenian Orthodox monastery that abuts the church, breaking down doors in a search for food.

On Tuesday morning, Israeli soldiers heard a bell ringing from the monastery. There, they saw three men holding a sign on a balcony: "Please help," it said in English, according to an army commander.

Israeli soldiers approached the men via a route that the troops had been using to smuggle food to the monastery, which has remained largely isolated from the Palestinians inside the main church, the commander said.

Three men--two priests and a church worker--then sneaked out, the commander said. The men said they were in a state of shock after the Palestinian incursion into the monastery.

The Palestinians stole a gold neck chain worn by one of the priests and broke down a door, said the army commander, who declined to give his name. The Israeli army offered to make the priests available for questioning but later said they were too exhausted from their ordeal.

"They were not so well" when they came out, the commander said. "They were shocked."

The state of the religious workers in the church compound has remained one of the most confused and delicate questions of the siege. Israeli officials have said they are being held hostage. The Armenian priests, the Israeli commander said, confirmed that version Tuesday.

But those inside the compound have denied that they are being held as prisoners.

"We are here of our own free will, to protect the holy places," said Father Parthenus, a Greek Orthodox priest, in a phone interview from inside the church late Monday.

Israeli Snipers Watch Over Complex

The clashes at the church compound have been matched by battles outside it. On Tuesday, the Israeli army took reporters on a guided tour of Bethlehem, using a bulletproof bus with Day-Glo upholstery.

Escorted by two modified U.S.-made Patton tanks and an armored personnel carrier, the bus traveled to a construction site only a few hundred yards east of the church, which sits on a hill overlooking Bethlehem's dun-colored apartment buildings and nearby valleys.

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