Vatican Presents Plan To End
Bethlehem Church Standoff

By Wael al-Ahmad

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - The Vatican has put forward a plan aimed at peacefully resolving the armed standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen bunkered inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in Christendom.
The report, from Italy's Ansa news agency, which quoted the Rome-based spokesman of the Franciscan Order in the Holy Land that has custody over the church, gave no immediate details.
"I know both the Israelis and the Palestinians well. They must accept these proposals before the situation gets out of hand," Father David Jaeger was quoted by Ansa as saying.
The armed standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen bunkered inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, went into a fifth day on Saturday.
The Franciscan order in the Holy Land, which has custody over the church, has voiced fears of an imminent Israeli assault.
Occasional gunfire was heard coming from Israeli positions around the church, built over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.
Palestinian lawyer Tony Salman, inside with around 200 armed gunmen and a handful of other civilians, said by phone that the shots did not hit the church and that there was no other development in the standoff.
The gunmen holed up inside the church on Tuesday after Israeli forces stormed into Bethlehem as part of their West Bank sweep that has seen them re-take six of the eight major Palestinian towns.
Around 30 Franciscans are also inside the church. They do not consider themselves hostages, and the Franciscan order said Friday they would stay to prevent a "massacre" at the holy site.
"Word is that the Israeli army has decided officially to consider the monks in the Basilica of the Nativity as 'hostages'. We heard a military commander say this on Italian radio," Father David Jaeger, Rome-based spokesman for the Franciscans, told the Vatican news agency Fides on Friday.
"One cannot but fear that that is an attempt to legitimise an armed assault, perhaps an imminent one," he added.
The Israeli army tried in vain Friday to persuade Palestinian gunmen hiding in the church to surrender.
"It is unacceptable, under any pretext, to attack a holy place," Father Jaeger told Fides.
"Such an assault, no matter how it is presented, would be a grave violation of a holy site, of the basic principles of humanity and civilisation and of international accords," he added.

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