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Palestinians at Nativity Church Demand Meeting With Arafat

Mideast: Nine teens leave the complex, and two bodies are removed. Both sides express optimism that a resolution to the long standoff is near.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Negotiations toward a peaceful end to the three-week siege at the Church of the Nativity hit a stumbling block late Thursday as encircled Palestinians demanded a meeting with their equally besieged leader, Yasser Arafat.

It was unclear whether the Israelis would permit such a meeting. However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon indicated that he might loosen restrictions on the Palestinian leader, who is trapped by Israeli forces in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"We hope we will get a positive answer any time," said Salah Tamari, the lead Palestinian negotiator, adding that talks would not continue without such a consultation. "It is crucial to meet Arafat."

Nine teenagers and the bodies of two men were brought out of the church Thursday afternoon, a minor breakthrough that had both sides predicting a resolution soon to the crisis at one of Christianity's holiest places.

"There is very cautious optimism that the affair is closer to an end today than it was yesterday," Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli military's chief spokesman, told Army Radio.

More than 140 Palestinians took shelter in the church when the Israeli army advanced into Bethlehem on April 2 as part of its West Bank offensive. Israel believes that about 30 are armed militants.

About 80 priests, nuns and monks were trapped with the Palestinians at the site, a large compound that tradition holds marks the site of Jesus' birth.

The status of those in the church has remained unclear. The Israelis insist that at least some of the church leaders and Palestinians are being held hostage. Those inside, as well as some who have left, have denied the charge.

The two sides have remained in a tense standoff, exchanging fire several times. The most recent incident came Wednesday, when an Israeli soldier was injured and a Palestinian fighter was killed.

Tension in the church has risen in recent days, as food and water supplies have dwindled. More than 30 people, including several priests, have fled during the standoff, according to the Israeli military.

The primary sticking point remains the fate of those inside whom the Israelis consider terrorists. Israel wants to try the men or have them deported to another country. Palestinians have proposed sending them to the Gaza Strip, but those in the church say that some of the gunmen are rejecting even that option. In Gaza, the men might be an easy target for informants or Israeli security strikes.

One issue was resolved Thursday with the removal of the two bodies. Palestinians said the men were shot by snipers. The Israelis declined to comment on how they died but have said that troops fire only on armed men in the church.

About 3 p.m., nine teenage boys were seen leaving the church, their faces covered with white surgical masks. Israeli soldiers fired smoke grenades that obscured the view of the scene, but at one point the youths could be seen carrying two coffins toward an ambulance.

The teenagers were held for questioning by Israeli security forces, then released late Thursday. The army said they were given food and medical care.

One teen, Abdulhay abu Srur, 17, appeared worn and tired after his release. He said the church smelled horrible and was badly damaged from the firefights.

Most of the Palestinians still inside are police officers armed with machine guns, he said, and morale remains high despite the problems. Those inside have rejected exile as an option, Abu Srur said, adding, "Life inside the church is a disaster."

Srur said he had been eating only lemon peels for days and had lost more than 30 pounds.

His weight loss seemed confirmed a few moments later when he walked up the steps of the crowded tenement where his family lives in a refugee camp in nearby Beit Jala. His mother shouted out when she saw him. "My son was as big as a camel!" she said. "Look at him now!"

The two badly decomposed bodies arrived at a nearby hospital in crude wooden boxes. One coffin appeared to have been built from particle board, the other from burned pieces of wood.

Abir Nasman, the wife of one of the dead men, broke down in sobs when the coffins arrived. She said her husband, Hassan, was a policeman who had sought safety in the church during the Israeli invasion.

Abir Nasman, who lost her first husband in another confrontation with Israeli troops, said the 23-year-old policeman was not a militant. During their final telephone call the day before he was shot two weeks ago, he asked about his two daughters, ages 1 and 2.

Nasman, 24, said her husband had died for the Palestinian cause.

"As a Muslim, there is a saying in the Koran: 'Whoever enters a holy place is safe,' " said Siham Massalmeh, 44, Hassan Nasman's mother-in-law. "How is it possible that my son-in-law was killed in a house of God?"

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