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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 21:06 GMT 22:06 UK
Israel rejects Palestinian 'trial'
Makeshift Ramallah military tribunal - picture released by the Palestinian Authority
Security officers acted as judges and lawyers at the trial
Israel has dismissed the conviction of the Palestinian killers of an Israeli minister, repeating a demand that the men be extradited to Israel to face trial.

The Palestinian Authority said the men were sentenced to between one year and 18 years for murdering Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.

Hamdi Qoraan: shot Zeevi - 18 years
Bassel al-Asmar: look-out - 12 years
Mejdi Rehmi: getaway driver - eight years
Ahed Abu Gholma: knew about plot - one year
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday indicated that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could be freed from his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah and allowed to go Gaza.

There were also signs of a possible breakthrough in the three-week stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as nine Palestinians gave themselves up.

The four men accused of assassinating Zeevi were convicted and sentenced after a lightening trial in a makeshift Palestinian court in Mr Arafat's besieged headquarters.

Security officers acted as judges and lawyers.

The men had been in custody at the compound where Mr Arafat has been confined to his offices since Israeli forces ringed the complex on 29 March.

Israel has indicated that if the men are handed over, it might lift its siege.

Arafat 'test'

Mr Sharon said despite the trial the men "will anyway be brought to trial in Israel".

Yasser Arafat
Israel says Arafat might be allowed to go to Gaza
In an interview with the New York Post newspaper, Mr Sharon said he would consider letting Mr Arafat go to Gaza to demonstrate a willingness to impose law and order.

But the prime minister said he would not allow Mr Arafat to take any of the wanted men confined with him in his headquarters and he was sure the Palestinian leader would fail the test.

"With Arafat, no one will be able to make peace," said Mr Sharon.

The governor of Ramallah, Mustafa Issa, a close aide to Mr Arafat, was allowed out of the compound on Thursday - the first senior Palestinian to leave the complex since Israeli troops surrounded it.

Palestinian officials said Mr Issa was released to try to reorganise the administration of the city, which had broken down after the Israeli incursion.

Church surrender

In Bethlehem, nine Palestinians, aged 14 to 20, emerged from the Church of the Nativity and were taken into custody by Israel.

Palestinians leave the Church of the Nativity
Talks are continuing to end the church siege

The group also brought out the decomposing bodies of two Palestinians, who had died in the church early on in the siege.

One of the men who left the church, Yusuf Abu Srour, spoke of a shortage of food inside the holy site but said he had not been held against his will.

A fourth round of talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to end the stand-off broke up on Thursday night without agreement.

Reporting from Bethlehem, the BBC's Richard Miron says the main sticking point is the fate of an estimated 30 Palestinian gunmen, who are part of about 200 Palestinians inside the church.

Israeli army spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal said none of the wanted gunmen were among the men who left the church.

Militants 'wiped out'

A senior Israeli military officer, Major General Giora Eiland, told the Associated Press news agency that Israel had wiped out "almost the entire leadership" in the West Bank of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade since it began its offensive last month.

In continuing violence on Thursday, at least one Palestinian was killed when Israeli troops briefly entered the West Bank city of Hebron, while the Israeli army shot dead a Palestinian policeman at an Israeli checkpoint nearby.

Four Palestinians were shot dead in the Gaza Strip when they tried to infiltrate the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom, the Israeli military said.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"Israeli tanks and troops are still surrounding Yasser Arafat's compound"
See also:

25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Saudis to press US over Israel
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Zeevi dispute unresolved
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel's tactics become clearer
30 Mar 02 | Middle East
Inside Arafat's compound
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
No breakthrough in Bethlehem talks
24 Apr 02 | Middle East
Mubarak denounces Israel
24 Apr 02 | Middle East
Hamas bans children's 'sacrifices'
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Church with a turbulent history
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