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Tuesday, 30 April, 2002, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Palestinians leave besieged church
Palestinian officer (second left) is handed over to Israeli forces after leaving the church
Negotiations continue to try to end the stand-off
A group of Palestinians has left the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which has been besieged by Israeli troops since 2 April.

Twenty-six people were escorted out of the church by a monk and taken into Israeli custody for questioning.

As long as [Israeli] conditions have not been met there is no possibility to start the inquiry

Israeli Government

The Vatican announced earlier on Tuesday it was sending a high-ranking envoy to Jerusalem to try to resolve the dispute.

And the Israeli cabinet decided to block a United Nations' fact-finding team from visiting the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin.

It was the third time Israel has delayed accepting the UN team since the world body decided to send the mission on 19 April.

Bethlehem breakthrough

Palestinians left the church in the centre of Bethlehem one by one following a deal struck between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

Israeli army spokesman Colonel Olivier Rafowicz said half of the freed group were members of the Palestinian security forces.

  Click here for Nativity siege timeline

None are believed to be from a group of about 30 armed militants which fled to the church after Israel stormed into Bethlehem earlier this month.

Civilians, police, monks and nuns are among the 200 or so people still inside the church, but the militants are at the heart of the continuing stand-off.

Israel has offered them trial or exile, but Palestinian negotiators reject this and propose they be sent to Gaza.There has also been discussion of using American and British guards to supervise the men .

Jenin deadlock

Secretary General Kofi Annan says the UN has done everything to meet Israeli concerns about its fact-finding mission to the Jenin refugee camp.

Israeli soldiers in Jenin
Israel wants its soldiers to be immune from prosecution
But latest reports quote officials saying Mr Annan is now "minded" to disband the team given the Israel was continuing to block its deployment.

The team is due to look into what happened during fierce fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants earlier this month.

Following its meeting, the Israeli Government said concerns about the mission still needed to be addressed.

"Israel raised a number of issues with the United Nations that are vital for conducting a fair inquiry.

"As long as these conditions have not been met there is no possibility to start the inquiry," the statement said.

Palestinian officials denounced Israel's decision, while the international human rights group Amnesty International said it was "dismayed" by the continuing delay.

Palestinians say hundreds of civilians were killed in the camp; Israel denies the charge, insisting about 50 Palestinians - mainly militants - died in nine days of fighting.

Elsewhere, there were signs of progress towards ending Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's isolation after month-long blockade of his headquarters in Ramallah

Discussions including US and British are focusing on transferring a number of men wanted by Israel from Mr Arafat's compound to a prison near the Palestinian city of Jericho.

West Bank raids

Israeli forces have moved into the villages of Shawarwa, near Bethlehem, and Silat al-Harthiyeh, near Jenin, on Tuesday morning.

The Israeli army said it had arrested six Palestinians in Shawarwa before pulling out.

Palestinian sources said nine Palestinians were detained in Shawarwa and four in Silat al-Harthiyeh.

In Hebron, Israeli tanks and troops began withdrawing from the Palestinian section of the divided city, a day after moving in.

The army said it went into Hebron on Monday to crush the "terror infrastructure" in the city after Palestinian militants killed four Israelis in a nearby Jewish settlement.

The BBC's David Lawrence
"This is the strongest sign yet of a breakthrough in the stand-off"
The BBC's Richard Miron in Bethlehem
"There is a long way to go before a final resolution"
See also:

30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Profile: Israel's six wanted
30 Apr 02 | Middle East
Pope to send Mid-East envoy
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
Expert weighs up Jenin 'massacre'
26 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jenin tactics under the spotlight
29 Apr 02 | Africa
Tutu condemns Israeli 'apartheid'
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN welcomes UAE Jenin pledge
29 Apr 02 | Middle East
Ramallah deal hinges on prisoners
25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
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