Palestinian teenagers leave Bethlehem church

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Partly obscured from the view of the world's TV cameras by smoke bombs thrown by the Israeli army, nine weary Palestinian teenagers left the Church of the Nativity yesterday, producing a glimmer of hope that the three-week siege could be drawing towards an end.

Israeli army officers decided that their exit should not be clearly seen by the assembled press, but made an exception for the former US tabloid TV talk show host, Geraldo Rivera.

The nine young men were met by Israeli soldiers and Mr Rivera, whose employers – Fox TV – have close links to Ariel Sharon. Wearing protective white masks, they came out of the basilica carrying a container with the remains of two Palestinians who had been decomposing inside the church.

An Israeli army official said that the young men were not among a group of around 30 armed Palestinian militants inside the church. The key issue in dispute is the fate of the armed men. Palestinian negotiators have proposed that they be escorted to the Gaza Strip. Israel wants them to surrender and be tried, or be deported.