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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
Shooting erupts near Bethlehem church
Nuns confront Israeli soldier outside St Mary's Church, Bethlehem
Nuns, monks and priests have been caught up in the action
Gunshots and explosions have been heard around Manger Square in Bethlehem, as Israel presses ahead with its offensive against Palestinian militants.

Palestinian fighters inside the Church of the Nativity told the BBC that Israeli forces had blown open the back door, leaving only a corridor separating them from the soldiers.

  • Compound covers 12,000 square metres
  • Originally erected in the 4th century, but destroyed
  • Current church built in 6th century
  • Star marks Jesus Christ's birthplace

    See also:   Church with a turbulent history

  • Up to 200 Palestinian police and militiamen are reported to be inside the church - believed by Christians to mark the birthplace of Christ.

    As the violence continued, reports from Washington said the United States was about to embark on a new Middle East peace initiative.

    President Bush is expected to announce that Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to the region next week to try to halt the fighting.

    The move follows intense criticism of the Bush administration over its perceived failure to intervene in the crisis.

    Lives 'at risk'

    One of the priests trapped in the Church of the Nativity, church warden Father Ibrahim Faltas, said their lives were in danger.

    "The situation is very serious," he told Italian Rai Uno Television.

    "The Israelis have smashed down the door to the Nativity (Church), where the Palestinians were hiding.

    "Now the Palestinians are inside the convent and the battle among the two parts is raging, and we are in the middle. We are in danger."

    In an interview with Vatican Radio he called for outside help.

    "I call on the international community to intervene, to save us from this situation."

    The Israeli army denied that it had stormed the church, but said its soldiers fired shots while chasing militants who had escaped.

    The fresh confrontation came as the Israeli army tightened its grip on the main towns and cities in the West Bank.

    On Wednesday night, more than 100 tanks and armoured vehicles rolled into Nablus, the West Bank's biggest city, leaving only two major towns still in Palestinian hands - Hebron and Jericho.

    Four refugee camps in Nablus are surrounded and there have been fierce exchanges of fire.

    Casualties are reported on both sides, but there are no clear details. Hundreds of Palestinians are reported to have been detained.

    The Palestinian leadership has asked the international community to intervene "urgently", while vowing that its fighters will continue to resist.

    "We ask the international community to intervene urgently to stop the Israeli war and aggression," a statement from the official WAFA news agency said.

    Diplomatic efforts

    The US envoy to the region, Anthony Zinni, has been meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

    He was expected to ask Mr Sharon to allow him to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his besieged Ramallah headquarters.

    Mr Sharon has already said he will not allow an European Union delegation made up of EU policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique to break the isolation Israel is imposing on the Palestinian leader.

    An Israeli official, who asked not to be named, said: "The Europeans' only aim is to provide Arafat with a public platform and that we will not allow."

    The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem says the mounting international criticism is falling on deaf Israeli ears and officials seem determined to press on with what they call a war on terror.

    A Palestinian woman cries in Bethlehem
    Most people are still staying at home, too afraid to move

    Mr Arafat has been confined to a small area of his Ramallah compound since Israeli troops smashed through the perimeter and occupied most of the buildings inside.

    The Israeli offensive began last Friday in response to a suicide bomb attack in Netanya that killed 26 Israelis at the start of the Jewish Passover holiday.

    Egypt has said it is suspending contacts with Israel apart from diplomatic channels which could help the Palestinians.

    But Israeli official dismissed the move as a symbolic gesture.

    Bethlehem and Ramallah have both been declared closed military areas.

    The BBC's Paul Wood in Jerusalem
    "Sharon is not listening to international condemnation"
    Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak
    "Arafat has broken all his Oslo commitments"
    Former palestinian negotiator Ghassan al-Khatib
    "The Israeli's intend to make this reoccupation permanent"
    See also:

    04 Apr 02 | Middle East
    EU team meets Israeli leaders
    04 Apr 02 | UK Politics
    Blair 'appalled' by Mid East violence
    04 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Bethlehem priest shelters Palestinians
    04 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Palestinian nerve centre hit
    03 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Egypt scales down Israel contacts
    03 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Israel and Hezbollah exchange fire
    03 Apr 02 | Middle East
    US sends mixed signals on Mid-East
    02 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Analysis: Arafat under attack
    02 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Israel considers exiling Arafat
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