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Saturday, 13 April, 2002, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Pleas for mercy in Bethlehem siege
Smoke rises from Manger Square
Soldiers surrounded the church after Palestinians fled there
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By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Bethlehem
It is now the 12th day of the extraordinary standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, and Christian leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the fate of those trapped inside.

Church leaders in Jerusalem met the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on Saturday and asked him to use his influence to ensure that food and medicines are allowed into the church.

A Franciscan priest inside the church spoke of a night of 'psycho-terror' as Israeli soldiers blasted Manger Square with loud screeching sounds

Clerics also want permission to remove the body of a policeman shot dead in the church by Israeli troops on Monday.

On Friday, the Palestinians in the church issued an urgent appeal for help from Pope John Paul II and the United Nations, saying they needed food, medicines and water to save them from what they called "a slow death".

Soldiers surrounded the church after more than 200 Palestinians took refuge there, among them a group of armed militants. About 40 nuns, monks and priests are also inside.

Representatives of 13 Christian denominations told Mr Powell that those inside the church must be given humanitarian aid.

The clerics said there were many civilians among them, including women and children.

They proposed a three-day truce in which the Israeli army would withdraw from the church compound and the Palestinian Authority would collect the weapons from the armed men inside.

Psychological pressure

But Israel is unlikely to accept the suggestion.

Instead, it is stepping up the psychological pressure on the Palestinians to surrender.

A Franciscan priest inside the church spoke of a night of "psycho-terror" as Israeli soldiers blasted Manger Square with loud screeching sounds.

An Israeli army spokesman has said Israel is now more determined than ever not to let the militants inside go free.

But it has been heavily criticised for its siege of the church, where it shot and wounded an Armenian cleric on Thursday.

An army statement said soldiers had thought he was armed.

See also:

09 Apr 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Bethlehem battle-scarred
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Vatican outrage over church siege
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem siege sparks church fury
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Bethlehem's woes
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Sharon unmoved by US pressure
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
Powell's peace mission begins
08 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN Security Council's growing anger
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