Sniper Kills Bethlehem
Church Bell-Ringer


BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - For three decades, Samir Ibrahim Salman rose every day at dawn to ring the bells of the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest sites, in Bethlehem.
At 6:30 a.m., the middle-aged Christian Palestinian left home for the short walk across Manger Square to the church, where Israeli troops were besieging about 200 Palestinians, some of them armed, who took refuge there Tuesday.
Moments later he was shot in the chest.
"As soon as he left his house, a sniper shot him," Anton Salman, a distant cousin of the bell-ringer, told Reuters by telephone from the West Bank town.
Palestinians are convinced an Israeli fired the fatal bullet. The Israeli army said troops had fired no shots near the church. It had no knowledge of Salman's fate.
"He had been used to ringing the church bells at dawn every day since 1967," Anton Salman said. "Almost everyone in Bethlehem knows him."
Medics said Salman bled for hours in the square before an ambulance was able to reach him. By then he was dead.
Anton Salman said his cousin was a familiar sight to many Bethlehem residents accustomed to seeing him make his way, back slightly bent, across the square to the ancient church, built above the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
"Apparently he was unaware of the danger. He was a simple man who spent most of his time in the church. He never bothered anybody or hurt anyone," he added.
Israeli troops occupied Bethlehem along with other Palestinian-ruled West Bank cities and towns in a military offensive which Israel said was aimed at hunting down suicide bombers who have killed dozens of Israelis.
Hospital staff say at least 13 Palestinians have been killed since tanks and armored troop carriers swept into the town Monday, the day after Easter.
A handful of Palestinian fighters skirmished with the Israelis, but most have now melted away except, possibly, for some gunmen who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, mingling with dozens of nuns, priests and civilians.
Israel says some of the gunmen are militants suspected of carrying out attacks against the Jewish state.
"It's a shame. Samir won't be able to wake up Bethlehem on his church bells any more," Anton Salman said.
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