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Sunday, 21 April, 2002, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
'Food runs out' in Bethlehem church
Israeli soldiers near Church of the Nativity
The church remains heavily surrounded by Israeli troops
Around 250 Palestinians besieged in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity say they have run out of food after nearly three weeks surrounded by Israeli forces.

"There is no food left in the church now for the Palestinians or the monks and nuns," said Franciscan priest Reverend Ibrahim Faltas.

Palestinian woman and her family wait for a chance to cross the street
The tight blockade on Bethlehem will continue, Israel says
  • 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

  • Some of those inside the 1,700-year-old holy site are reported to be considering suicide as conditions inside deteriorate.

    In his Sunday sermon, Pope John Paul II said events at the church had been characterised by "clashes, blackmail and an intolerable exchange of accusations".

    Palestinians in the church and negotiators trying to end the stand-off say there is no running water, intermittent electricity and a body decaying in a cave below the church, traditionally held to mark the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

    Disagreements were also reported on Saturday between those barricaded inside the church, who include civilians, around 40 priests and nuns, and 30 Palestinians who the Israeli army says are wanted militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

    A Palestinian policeman inside the church said soldiers had been blocking supplies of food and medical supplies to the church complex.

    "We were living on rice and spaghetti and now it's almost gone. There's no salt. We're mostly on water," he told Reuters news agency by mobile telephone on Saturday.

    An Israeli military spokesman told Reuters the army was continuing to give food to Red Cross workers, who were taking it into the church.

    'Troops boost'

    But those inside the church said the army had dropped leaflets over the wall in plastic bottles which read: "We know you are without food".

    Flares above Church of the Nativity
    "Think well and decide about your life," they said the Arabic language leaflets, signed by the Israeli Defence Force leadership, said.

    A policeman inside the church told Reuters the Israelis had been boosting the number of troops ringing the church.

    But the Israelis denied stepping up their operations, which have involved blasting the building with ear-splitting screeches, flares and smoke bombs and firing at the church bell.

    Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said earlier high-level talks involving European, US and Vatican officials on ending the stand-off at one of Christianity's holiest sites were going on.

    On Saturday, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser told Reuters that high level negotiations involving European, US and Vatican officials were continuing on Saturday.

    But the BBC's Jonny Dymond in Bethlehem says no progress has been made.

    The BBC's Jonny Dymond reports from Bethlehem
    "There is something of a PR game being played out"
    Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner
    "It is a pity that they have been holding out for so many days"
    See also:

    19 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Hamas leader held in Bethlehem
    18 Apr 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
    Stand-off in the 'city of peace'
    17 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Backpackers baffled by Bethlehem siege
    13 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Palestinian 'shot dead' in Bethlehem
    08 Apr 02 | Middle East
    Vatican outrage over church siege
    08 Apr 02 | Middle East
    In pictures: Bethlehem's woes
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