Gunbattles, Fires Erupt Near
Bethlehem Church

By Michael Georgy

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen battled near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Wednesday in some of the worst fighting since a siege of the site began one month ago.
Israeli troops have besieged the church, revered by Christians as the site where Jesus was born, since several dozen Palestinian gunmen sought refuge at the start of Israel's West Bank offensive in early April.
A fire briefly broke out inside the church compound, where the gunmen have taken refuge with scores of civilians and clergy. The blaze later died out.
The sound of gunfire crackled as Israeli soldiers lit up the entire church area with flares. The exchange lasted just less than an hour.
Each side accused the other of firing the first shot. Palestinians inside the compound accused the Israelis of attempting to storm the church, while the Israeli military said Palestinian gunmen had ignited the blaze themselves.
"They used every means to attack us, but nobody was injured, thank God," a Palestinian man inside the church said by telephone.
An army spokesman said soldiers surrounding the church had shot back after gunmen fired at them first.
"There was absolutely no ground movement of Israeli forces toward the church, no storming of the church," Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold told CNN.
He said the fire was an act of arson by the gunmen. It had nothing to do with gunfire, Gold said.
Bethlehem governor Mohammed al-Madani, who is inside the church, told Reuters that three people were hurt by the fire and that the fighting was some of the worst since the standoff began.
"There is shooting everywhere, firing from all around us," he said.
No damage appeared to have been inflicted on the church's basilica, an Israeli army spokesman said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israeli troops shot and wounded a Palestinian they described as a gunman in a courtyard of the church. He was hit in the shoulder, then surrendered along with another man, an army statement said.
Israeli soldiers fired into the air to scare off youths who threw stones at them in the afternoon.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, one of the negotiators seeking to resolve the stand-off, told Reuters that talks had been hamstrung by demands for food for those inside the church.
Dozens of Palestinian police, Christian clerics and other civilians are trapped in the shrine, where food and water are in short supply.
Israel says the gunmen are holding them hostage. The Palestinians deny that anyone is being held against their will.
Israel has demanded that the wanted men, whom it blames for suicide bombings and shootings, surrender for trial in Israel or exile. Palestinians propose that they be given safe passage to Gaza, which is cut off from the West Bank by Israeli territory.

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