Israeli helicopters pound Jenin refugee camp

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The Independent Online

Israeli helicopter gunships pounded a West Bank refugee camp with dozens of rockets this morning, and fire broke in the compound of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during a gunbattle between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians who have been holed up there for a week.

The heaviest fighting raged in the West Bank city of Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp, two militant strongholds where hundreds of gunmen have been fighting advancing Israeli soldiers for five days.

In the Jenin camp, Israeli helicopters fired several dozen missiles, pounding militants who ignored warnings of the attack and calls to surrender their weapons, said Jamal Abdel Salam, a camp resident and activist in the Islamic militant Hamas group. Abdel Salam said that as troops moved into the camp, army bulldozers flattened homes. He said dozens of houses had already been destroyed.

The Israeli military said about 150 men put down their weapons and emerged from the camp early Monday. Abdel Salam said only women, children and the elderly left the camp. The militants were staying put, ready to fight to the death, he said.

Abdel Salam said there were many casualties, but that an exact count was impossible because ambulances could not reach the scene.

Israeli officials said they believed between 100 and 200 Palestinians have been killed so far in fighting in Jenin and Nablus.

In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, smoke rose from the Old City, a densely populated maze of stone buildings and narrow streets. In one of the rubble­covered alleys, gunmen were trying to pull a seriously wounded comrade to safety. One of the rescuers was shot in the leg and fell over the wounded man on the ground, before both were carried away as helicopters fired from machine guns.

The incident took place Sunday and was witnessed by APTN cameraman Nazeeh Darwazeh, who also saw two bodies lying in the streets, including that of Ahmed Tabouk, a local vigilante feared by many in the Old City.

The Palestinian governor of Nablus, Mahmoud Aloul, said the bodies of 10 Palestinians were transferred to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, but that there were more dead lying in the streets.

In Bethlehem, Israeli troops ringing the Church of the Nativity exchanged fire early on Monday with armed Palestinians holed up in one of Christianity's holiest shrines, and a fire broke out in the compound.

A Palestinian policeman, who was trying to extinguish the blaze, was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper, a fellow policeman in the compound said. The Israeli military said two Israeli soldiers were wounded.

Each side accused the other of causing the fire in a second floor meeting hall above the courtyard of St. Katherine's, a Roman Catholic church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. The fire, which burned for about an hour before a fire crew could arrive, destroyed a piano, chairs, altar cloths and ceremonial cups.

"While the people were trying to put out the fire, Israelis opened fire and killed one Palestinian whose body is still inside the church," said Father Amjad Sabara. "Everything inside the hall was burned."

Israeli troops searched Palestinian firefighters who came to extinguish the blaze. The firefighters were eventually allowed to go to Manger Square and put out the fire by aiming their water hoses over the compound's wall.

The Israeli military said Palestinians fired assault rifles and tossed grenades from the church compound at two Israeli observation posts on Manger Square, wounding two soldiers. Troops returned fire, and the shooting and grenades set several fires, the military said.

More than 200 armed Palestinians, including police and militiamen, have been holed up for seven days inside the church. Israeli soldiers have been using loudspeakers to demand that the gunmen surrender, but they have refused to come out. The army has said troops would not storm the church.

Israeli troops and tanks began rumbling into the West Bank on March 29, beginning a massive hunt for weapons, explosives and militants who have terrorized Israel with a series of suicide bombings and other attacks.

Israeli leaders have not said how long the operation would last, but many believe it's quickly running out of time amid increasing pressure from America and the United Nations for an immediate pullout.