Israel, Palestinians Negotiate On
Church Of Nativity Siege

By Michael Georgy

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians and Israelis held their first direct talks Tuesday on ending a three-week-old standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where dozens of Palestinian gunmen are holed up.
Before these talks and amid renewed international diplomacy, an Israeli helicopter missile attack killed two Palestinian militants in Hebron overnight and hooded gunmen dragged three men accused of collaborating with Israel to the scene and shot them dead.
Crowds of Palestinians gathered to view the bodies of the suspected collaborators, who were killed hours after the Israeli attack -- the first since Sunday when Israel wound down its West Bank military offensive.
Tanks still ringed President Yasser Arafat's headquarters, but Israeli efforts to isolate him seemed to be eroding, with planned visits this week by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey.
Palestinian negotiator Salah Taamari, a member of the Palestinian legislature, said Arafat had been briefed on the Bethlehem negotiations after Israeli and Palestinian representatives held a morning session of talks in the city.
"He gave us his blessing to reach an agreement," Taamari said.
He added before an evening session of talks: "I don't expect them (the talks) to end today, but I do hope that we will be able to reach some agreement."
Dozens of Palestinian gunmen ran into the church when Israeli troops reoccupied Bethlehem on April 2 on the fifth day of a military sweep through the West Bank unleashed after suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.
Israel has vowed to keep up the siege at the church, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, until 35 to 40 wanted militants surrender for trial in Israel or exile.
"There are around 200 others who may be armed, but are not wanted. In addition, there are around 50 minors and 30 clergymen in the church," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman.
He said three Armenian priests had left the church on Tuesday with a white flag and a sign reading "Please Help."
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said the Palestinians, who have rejected the Israeli demands, were proposing a compromise under which the wanted men would be sent to the Gaza Strip.
Rafowicz said after the morning session that the two sides had laid out their positions. "It is too early to assess what was achieved," he added.
In Rome, Father David Jaeger, spokesman for the Franciscan custodians of Holy Land sites, said the group had filed a request to Israel's highest court to order Israeli authorities to meet humanitarian needs in the besieged church complex.
He said the request was to restore water and electricity supplies, to stop impeding the delivery of food and "before all to permit the removal and proper burial of dead bodies."
The Israeli army said it had supplied food to the church throughout the siege, adding that the compound had a well.
The missile strike killed Marwan Zuloum, local head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, linked to Arafat's Fatah faction and behind deadly attacks on Israelis. Zuloum's bodyguard also died.
The killing of suspected collaborators in Hebron followed similar shootings of three men in Ramallah Monday, one of whom died of his wounds. Palestinians say their police and security services were destroyed in Israel's offensive.
Palestinian medical sources said Amin Ziad Tawabtah, 13, had died in a Hebron hospital after an Israeli soldier shot at a group of stone-throwing youths in Beit Fajjar village, west of Bethlehem. The army had no immediate comment.
U.S. envoy William Burns, who held what Palestinians said were unproductive talks with Arafat Monday, met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Tuesday, but no details emerged.
EU foreign policy chief Solana, denied access to Arafat when he and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique traveled to the Middle East earlier in the month, was planning to see Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters Wednesday, EU president Spain said.
Pique told a news conference in Spain that Solana, accompanied by the EU's Middle East envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos, would also hold talks with Sharon.
An Israeli political source said Sharon would consult foreign and defense ministry officials before deciding whether to accept a U.N.-appointed committee mandated to discover what happened during Israel's assault on the Jenin refugee camp.
In response to world outcry over the havoc wrought in the camp, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan named a fact-finding team led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
The team, expected to reach the region later this week, also includes Sadako Ogata, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Cornelio Sommaruga, the Swiss former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Palestinian officials have welcomed the appointments.
Israel says it has nothing to hide in the Jenin camp, scene of the fiercest fighting in the West Bank campaign.
Palestinians say hundreds of civilians may have been killed there, including many whose homes were shelled or bulldozed over their heads. Israel says it killed only a few dozen gunmen and that 23 of its own soldiers died in street fighting.
Palestinian hospital officials say 45 bodies have been recovered so far and more remain under the rubble.
At least 1,299 Palestinians and 454 Israelis have been killed during an 18-month-old Palestinian uprising.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, planning a joint mission to the region, will meet Arafat and then Peres Thursday, a Turkish official said. Cem and Papandreou also expected to meet Sharon.

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