- 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
- 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,"
- 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."
- COMPROMISE PROPOSED
- 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.
- BURNS MEETS SHARON
- 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
- 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.