Palestinian gunmen trapped inside Christian shrine

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The Independent Online

Scores of Palestinian gunmen are hiding inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity besieged by Israeli troops, helicopters and tanks which invaded the city as part of a huge offensive against Palestinian militias in the West Bank.

As violence increased throughout the West Bank, bodies of four gunmen, shot dead in a firefight yesterday, lay on street near the church this morning, with rescue services unable to reach them or other casualties because of constant shooting.

A tank was stationed at the edge of Manger Square, adjacent to the church, the army said. Bethlehem Mayor Hana Nasser said soldiers had occupied the municipality building overlooking the square and the church.

Israeli forces pushed into other West Bank centres before dawn, entering the northern towns of Salfit and Jenin and the Jelazoun refugee camp, near Ramallah.

At the Church of the Nativity – built over the traditional birthplace of Jesus – priests were forced to give refuge to Palestinian police and militiamen, who shot their way in after running battles with Israeli troops firing from helicopter gunships and from tank–mounted machine guns.

As Israeli soldiers encircled the church, the Palestinians rested in pews and on the stone floor, according to Samir, a Palestinian policeman inside the church. About 20 of the gunmen were wounded and were being tended to by nuns and priests, Samir said.

"First of all, most of the guys have run out of bullets and secondly, we're completely surrounded," he said by telephone.

Marc Innaro, a correspondent for Italy's RAI TV, who was trapped in the compound by the fighting with five colleagues, said about 120 armed men were hiding in the church.

In Jenin, at least 30 tanks rumbled into the town, exchanging fire with Palestinians at the entrance of a refugee camp, witnesses said. Israeli forces took over several tall buildings that provided views into the camp, they said.

A Palestinian woman, Fadwa Jammal, 27, died after she was shot in the abdomen, said Mohammed Abu Ghali, director of the city's hospital.

Tanks also took up positions in Salfit. The army said that there were exchanges of fire as troops moved into the town but neither side reported casualties.

In the West Bank commercial centre of Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained pinned down by Israeli troops and tanks, his compound now ringed by barbed wire.

Late last night, Israeli soldiers foiled a suicide bombing by shooting at explosives strapped to the attacker's chest, detonating the bomb and killing the man before he could get close enough to harm others, the military said.

Soldiers fired at the man, who appeared to have something bulky around his torso, after he charged them at a checkpoint in Baka al–Sharkiyeh, a Palestinian village along the line between Israel and the West Bank, the military said.