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THE MIDDLE EAST

Palestinians Cut Off Talks on Siege

Bethlehem: Move comes after Israeli fire kills another alleged gunman in the Church of the Nativity. But in the U.S., Powell says he expects an agreement soon.

April 30, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian negotiators broke off talks over the siege at the Church of the Nativity on Monday after Israeli forces killed another alleged gunman holed up inside one of Christianity's holiest sites.

The interruption undermined hopes for a quick resolution of the standoff at the location revered as Jesus' birthplace. Disputes also broke out among Palestinians trapped inside the church.

"We cannot continue negotiating under these circumstances," said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, a member of the Palestinian negotiating committee. "We are stuck in the mud. Nothing is moving."

But later Monday, a Palestinian negotiator said he expected talks to resume today. And in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he expected an agreement to end the stalemate would be reached soon.

The Israelis would not comment on the status of the negotiations but acknowledged that scheduled meetings did not take place Monday.

They also confirmed that Israeli forces had shot and killed a Palestinian on Monday morning who they said was firing an automatic weapon from inside the church. Palestinians identified the man as Nidal Abeiyat.

"If we continue with negotiations, this is as if we are giving them the chance to continue with their killings of more Palestinians," chief Palestinian negotiator Salah Tamari told the Al Jazeera satellite television network. "If the Israeli side is serious in achieving a nonviolent solution to the situation, it should stop shooting against the church."

The siege is entering its fourth week. An estimated 180 Palestinian men remain inside the basilica, their supplies of water, food and electricity severely limited.

They are accompanied by about 40 clerics from different Christian denominations, who jointly operate the church. The religious compound has been under siege since shortly after the Israelis began their West Bank offensive late last month to root out terrorist cells.

The standoff is also disrupting Easter week celebrations at the church for the Greek Orthodox community, which has a different liturgical calendar than the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths and marks Easter this Sunday.

The key problem remains the fate of about 10 Palestinian men wanted by the Israelis for attacks against soldiers and civilians. The Israelis say the men are militants from the Islamic group Hamas and from the Tanzim, the military wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Israelis insist that the men face trial in Israel or exile abroad. But the Palestinians say the men should be sent to the Gaza Strip for Palestinian judicial proceedings.

Neither side has budged during six days of talks, a period in which the Israelis have wounded two men inside the church and killed two others, including the man shot Monday.

The Palestinians now want the Israelis to accept a solution similar to the one to end Arafat's confinement at his compound in Ramallah. They issued a call on Monday for increased diplomatic efforts to persuade the Israelis to allow a Palestinian trial for the wanted men that would be monitored by U.S. or British representatives.

As the two sides canceled their talks, cracks began to show in the united front that the Palestinians inside the church have maintained.

An unidentified group of men called a local television station from inside the church Sunday to deny that the Palestinian negotiation team represented their interests. They said they would not abide by any agreement reached by the team.

Also, leaflets began circulating in the streets of nearby Beit Jala proclaiming that the Palestinian team was selling out the interests of militants inside the church.

At least 28 Palestinians inside the church signed a document Monday agreeing to accept exile. Most who signed, according to sources close to the negotiators, are Tanzim members who have requested deportations to places such as London, Paris and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

But Nasser said that Arafat had explicitly ruled out any such deportation. Instead, he said the Palestinian leader insisted that the men be taken to Gaza for trial.

"It's not up to those inside the church to decide where to go," Nasser said. "It's a very dangerous precedent, and we can't afford it."

The food supply is another important issue. Israeli soldiers stopped a protest group from delivering bags of food on Sunday.

Men could be seen scurrying from the church Monday to collect some of the abandoned bags of food. A wire was also seen poking from the front door of the church in an apparent attempt to drag in discarded cookies and crackers.

The Israeli army offered Monday to deliver 50 individual meals to the church, telling a Palestinian official that those not receiving the food could leave the church, Nasser said. But the Palestinians turned down the offer, saying everyone inside the church should be supplied food at the same time.

People who have recently left the church said that water is being drawn from insect-infested cisterns and that meals have dwindled to grass that those inside the compound have been able to harvest.

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