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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Bethlehem Britons tell of fear
Israeli soldier patrolling near the Church of the Nativity
Israeli soldiers have taken control of the nearby square
As British peace protesters are caught up in the Middle East violence, one of a group of Britons trapped in a Bethlehem hotel speaks to BBC News Online about their ordeal.

Mortaza Sahibzada is tense. According to the activist from London, he and his colleagues are facing a terrifying confrontation with a group of armed Israeli soldiers.

"One of them's pointing a gun at my head!" shouted Mortaza Sahibzada, who had moved near the hotel lobby's glass door for a better mobile phone reception.

People are scurrying right now because they [the soldiers] are pointing guns at our heads

Mortaza Sahibzada
Mr Sahibzada, a 33-year-old research fellow from the University of London, is a member of the International Solidarity Movement to Free Palestine.

He is one of about seven Britons in a group of 30 international peace activists holed up in the lobby of the Bethlehem Star Hotel.

The building is about 500m from Manger Square, where Palestinian gunmen have taken refuge in churches. Israeli forces are said have taken control of the area.

The activists are camped out in the lobby for fear of sniper attacks on higher floors.

But the front door is glass, and Israeli soldiers are said to be training their weapons on the protesters.

"This is crazy!" Mr Sahibzada shouted. "People are scurrying right now because they are pointing guns at our heads.

"We've already had the hotel shot at once.

"I don't know if the soldiers are just trying to intimidate us, but they're doing a very good job."

Rescue attempts

The group is awaiting rescue. Both the British and American consuls sent convoys to collect them on Tuesday, but were turned away because of heavy gunfire in the area.

Mr Sahibzada said another attempt was made by the Japanese consul on Wednesday morning, but it too was ordered back.

Earlier in the day, the activists were planning a rescue operation of their own - to save a group of Palestinian children trapped in a house on Manger Square.

"There's a Palestinian family of 14 whose mother has been shot dead and a son has been shot dead," Mr Sahibzada said.

"The children are hysterical and want to be brought out of the house to the hotel.
An Israeli soldier watches as activists demonstrate, near Bethlehem
Three British peace protestors were injured

"We want to rescue these kids."

But an hour later, he said they had been forced to abandon the plan.

"I don't think we dare do it. It's just too dangerous. We're all a little tense here."

Mr Sahibzada said power lines had been cut, but that the group has now managed to get a generator working.

Telephone lines were severed earlier, he said, although one of them was later reconnected.

Three of the activists were injured on Monday when they were fired on by Israeli soldiers during a peace march.

Second attempt

British consular officials are said to be preparing for a second attempt at rescuing the Britons.

But Mr Sahibzada said some activists planned to stay behind to provide a point of contact for members of the group still inside refugee camps.

They are said to have entered Deheishe camp to provide "human shields" against possible Israeli military action.

As bad as it is for us, for Palestinians in Deheishe refugee camp it must be 10 times worse

Mortaza Sahibzada

Now activists in the hotel have lost contact with them, and they are worried.

"We don't know what's happening," Mr Sahibzada said. He claims local reports indicate that Palestinians blew up a tank, and that Israeli forces were rounding up all the women between the ages of 15 and 25, and all the men between 15 and 45.

"It's very scary for us here, but as bad as it is for us, for Palestinians in Deheishe refugee camp it must be 10 times worse."

See also:

03 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem church under siege
02 Apr 02 | England
Protester 'desperate' to get home
02 Apr 02 | Middle East
Britons acting as 'human shields'
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