- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

BETHLEHEM Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western Arab states have refused to give refuge to Palestinian gunmen holed up inside the Church of the Nativity, frustrating efforts to end the three-week-long standoff, sources involved in the negotiations said yesterday.

The negotiators had asked the Arab states, provided the Palestinian Authority agrees, to take in about 30 of the gunmen accused by Israel of killing its civilians during 19 months of Palestinian uprising.

"The Arab states do not want to have these hot potatoes on their soil," one of the negotiators told The Washington Times.

About 100 other armed men are believed to be inside the church's expansive compound. Dozens of priests and nuns also have been trapped in the church along with members of the security forces, civilians and church workers.

Late last night, Palestinian negotiators offered to set up a trial under international supervision for the gunmen. The chief Palestinian Authority negotiator, Tourism Minister Mitri Abu-Ita, said the men would get "good punishment." He said he was flexible about the exact composition of any such court but insisted it had to be Palestinian-led.

The urgency of the efforts to end the siege at one of Christianity's holiest sites was underscored by a gunbattle that erupted nearby, killing a Palestinian, wounding another and seriously hurting an Israeli soldier.

"When the Palestinians entered to meet us, the Palestinians inside the church opened fire and wounded an Israeli soldier. This shows they want to harm the talks," Israeli army spokesman Olivier Rafowicz said.

One of the negotiators, Palestinian lawmaker Salah Tamari, said the talks were consumed with evacuating the wounded. One of the Palestinians died later in a Jerusalem hospital.

Israel has besieged the church since troops raided Bethlehem on April 2 in an offensive it said was intended to root out terrorism.

Late Tuesday, Israeli forces wounded an armed man who shot at them from the church compound, an Israeli army spokesman said, adding that he was evacuated to the hospital. Israeli military sources said he was one of the militants on Israel's wanted list.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said the gunmen have agreed to release 10 to 15 youths from the besieged shrine and evacuate two corpses. An army spokesman said the release would take place early today.

Israel has flatly rejected a Palestinian proposal to let the gunmen be transported to the Gaza Strip if they promise not to wreak any more violence against Israel. Instead, Israel proposed exiling the gunmen and freeing all the policemen and security officers against whom it had no claims of murder and violence.

Mr. Tamari yesterday took a tough line on the exile proposal. "Even if the men inside the church accept deportation, we will reject it" since Palestinians "suffered enough from exile," he told reporters.

Moreover, he said, having the accused men in Gaza would render them easier to "control" and not give them freedom to operate from abroad.

Two Armenian friars who escaped from the church on Tuesday night through a side exit spoke yesterday of extensive looting, including theft and destruction of Christian sacramental objects, from the church.

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