- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP)
- Israeli forces laid siege to the church that marks where Jesus Christ
was born, seeking to arrest dozens of Palestinian gunmen they said had
fired on them from one of Christianity's holiest sites.
- Witnesss said 300-400 people were holed up without food
in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Wednesday, after Israeli troops,
tanks and armored cars seized the city as part of a massive offensive on
the West Bank.
- They said most were civilians, including women and children,
and half a dozen were wounded. But an Israeli military source said they
included dozens of gunmen affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's
- The source, who asked not to be named, said the Palestinians
opened fire on Israeli troops, and "we have tried to establish contact
with them so that they can be arrested without spilling blood."
- Israeli army officials said they had given strict orders
not to fire at any churches but Palestinian security sources said a 39-year-old
Palestinian was killed by Israeli sniper fire outside the Church of the
- A man claiming to be the commander of the gunmen inside
the church, who refused to give his name or affiliation, said his men were
under orders not to open fire.
- "The fighters have instructions not to shoot in
holy places and not to give the Israelis the pretext to do so," he
- Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said
the Palestinians could claim sanctuary inside the church and had already
lain down their arms.
- "The basilica, a church, is a place of refuge for
everybody, even fighters, as long as they lay down their weapons,"
- "In this case, we have an obligation to give refuge
to Palestinians and Israelis alike."
- They were pinned down by troops deployed in Manger Square
in the city which the Israelis have proclaimed a "closed military
zone" and restricted local movements.
- A group of 200 clergymen representing all the churches
in the Holy Land tried to enter the city Wednesday but were turned back
at a roadblock.
- "Israeli army officials told us that Bethlehem was
a closed miltiary zone and we couldn't get in," said Father Raed Abusahlia,
secretary to the Catholic patriarch in Jerusalem.
- Father Abusahlia said the group, led by Sabbah, had hoped
to express its support for local residents during "the critical situation
in all the Palestinian areas, especially Bethlehem."
- The priest said they had received reports of many churches
being fired upon as the Israelis moved into Bethlehem.
- Bethlehem Mayor Hannan Nasser called the Israeli incursion
"a barbarous act" and said, "The army doesn't respect anything,
neither the churches nor the municipalities."
- But the streets were deserted Wednesday as the Israelis
stayed mainly indoors or in their tanks. Only sporadic light gunfire rattled
through the city.